In the opening sequence of Scrooged — which Sonny Bunch correctly identifies as one of the great Christmas movies of the modern age — we’re teased with the trailer for a movie called The Night the Reindeer Died. In this fictional made-for-TV movie, Santa’s workshop is attacked by machine-gun-wielding terrorists. Amid heavy artillery fire, Mrs. Claus races to the gun locker to hand out heavy weapons to the elves. Suddenly, Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man (that’s $32 million in today’s dollars), rides up on a snowmobile.
As the bullets fly, Majors asks Santa, “Is there a back way out of this place?”
Majors nods silently in admiration of Santa’s grit. But he warns St. Nick, “Look, it don’t matter a hill of beans what happens to me, but the world couldn’t afford it if anything happened to you. Now you stay put.”
“Aw, that’s very nice of you, Lee,” Santa says gratefully. He then adds, “And, Lee, you’re being a real good boy this year.”
Now that’s my kind of war on Christmas.
Alas, today’s “war on Christmas,” which has become for cable news an annual ritual, is merely another one of those metaphorical wars, like the wars on women, poverty, cancer, global warming, history, energy, religion, and science. (I’m sure I’m leaving a few dozen out.)
Of course “metaphorical” doesn’t mean “fictional.” The “war” on poverty is — or was — a real thing; it just wasn’t a war.
And yet the metaphorical wars have the capacity to elicit as much outrage as actual wars. For instance, in the Middle East and ever-growing swaths of Africa, there are nonmetaphorical wars on women, Christians, Jews, science, history, and gays. These wars have all the hallmarks of actual war, what with the killing, rape, and slavery. But in the United States the “war” on women that arouses so much passion from politicians and liberal activists should really be put in air quotes. Ditto the “war” on Christmas.
The war on Christmas represents a special kind of passive-aggressive jackassery.
Of course, the Left has always loved its metaphorical wars, ever since William James announced the pressing need for the “moral equivalent” of war. President Obama has kept that tradition alive, routinely calling for warlike unity in his effort to pour money down any number of rat holes. But the moment when the tail-chasing dog ate himself came when Obama declared a lexicological war on war, changing the “war on terror” to “overseas contingency operations.” Terrorist attacks became “man-caused disasters,” and American reprisals were euphemized as “kinetic military operations.” It was, to borrow a phrase, a metaphorical war to end all literal wars. We’ll know that battle has been won when we start talking about the Domestic Contingency Operation against Christmas.
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The merits of these metaphorical wars vary widely. War on cancer? Worth fighting. War on science? Mostly a bogus PR campaign to bully conservatives into silence. But the war on Christmas represents a special kind of passive-aggressive jackassery because the aggressors deny they have declared a war. They simply take offense at Christmas cheer. They cancel Christmas pageants. They leave baby Jesus in a cardboard box in the church basement, but see nothing wrong with celebrating the Winter Solstice as if that’s a more rational thing to do. And then, when people complain about this undeclared war on Christmas, the aggressors mock and ridicule them for paranoia and hyperbole.
Since we’re comparing things to actual wars, it’s a bit like Vladimir Putin’s mischief in the Ukraine. He sends troops across the border, then denies they’re Russian soldiers. The soldiers kill Ukrainians, but Russian TV floats the idea it’s all a hoax trumped up by the West. Then, after the Russians create facts on the ground, they whine when anyone makes a fuss. So it is with the war on Christmas.
Before I continue, I should get some disclaimers out of the way. The war on Christmas is a fraught issue for a right-wing guy named Goldberg. So with some prodding from the spirit of Full Disclosures Past, let me disclose fully. I am Jewish, albeit with some considerable emphasis on the ish. My father insisted my brother and I be raised Jewish. I went to a Jewish day school and was duly bar mitzvahed, so please spare me long lectures on the matrilineal nature of Judaism.
In any event, my Episcopalian mother insisted we celebrate Christmas. So while many of my friends at school had “Hanukkah bushes” instead of Christmas trees, we had a Christmas tree with a single modification. My parents cut out a jokey headline from a local newspaper and taped it to a flat cardboard Christmas tree ornament. It read, “Santa Knows We’re Jewish.”
We have a similar policy in my own home. Every year we light the Hanukkah candles. And their glow has not once scared off Santa, who dutifully eats his cookies and leaves his presents.
So there’s that. But the disclosures go on. I’m also a Fox News contributor (and happily so). Some of my colleagues — a generous term I use for people far more important and famous than yours truly — are generals in the War to Save Christmas. More on that in a bit.
The conflict has never really been about Christmas. It’s been about how a society tolerates conflicting visions of what kind of society people want.
Lastly, let me just say that I love Christmastime and I take no offense whatsoever when someone says to me, “Merry Christmas.” Indeed, I think it is written somewhere in the Talmud that if you make someone feel bad for sincerely wishing you a “Merry Christmas!” it means you’re a miserable, joyless ass (it sounds more high-minded in the original Hebrew). Of course, there’s a flip side to that. If you know someone is not Christian or hates Christmas for some reason, and you say “Merry Christmas” out of spite or vindictiveness, rather than with joy and good cheer, then you are the one putting the “ass” in Christmass.
And that is part of the genius of the Left’s passive-aggressive war on Christmas. By forcing Christmas-lovers — Christian and non-Christian alike — to take time out of their day to marshal a metaphorically martial defense of Christmas, they further undermine the whole point of the holiday, and the Holy Day. Turning Christmas into a battleground in the culture war compounds the damage they’re already doing.
Which brings me to the story of Hanukkah, in a really forced and contrived kind of way. Alexander the Great (in Yiddish, “Alexander He Could Be Worse”) conquered Palestine. But in the grand tradition of the “good czar,” he left the Jews alone. A century later, Antiochus IV, the Greek king of the Seleucid Empire — and one of the great putzes of antiquity — reigned.
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Except for the fact that Hanukkah didn’t exist yet, you might say he declared a war on Hanukkah, by which I mean he set out to actually destroy the Jews who hadn’t assimilated to Hellenistic culture. He appointed Greek priests to the High Temple, ordered the sacrifice of pigs on its altar, and killed Jews who wouldn’t go along. The Jews revolted and threw off their oppressor. The Hanukkah candles we light every year do not commemorate that victory — Jews aren’t supposed to glorify war — but rather the miracle of the untainted lantern oil lasting for eight nights in the temple, when there was only enough for one.
I bring this up because Jews have a lot of experience dealing with the challenges of living in societies where they are religious bystanders and nonconformists. From the dawn of the diaspora until 1948 (when Israel was founded), that was really their — our — only experience. And, to borrow a phrase from Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, it wasn’t all “pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad.” But it wasn’t all bad either. One of the lessons Jews learned is that respect is a two-way street. In decent societies the majority shows respect to the minority. But part of the bargain is that minorities also show respect to the majority. This is supposed to be a fun book about a joyful time of year, so I will skip past more recent historical examples of what happens when this grand bargain goes ass-over-teakettle. Just take my word for it.
But the lesson is worth taking to heart when thinking about the war on Christmas. The conflict has never really been about Christmas. It’s been about how a society tolerates conflicting visions of what kind of society people want.
The war on Christmas can best be understood as the point at which several tectonic plates of the culture grind together.
When they grind together really hard, we get earthquakes. The plates have been grinding together for generations, and they go by many names: secular humanism, nihilism, relativism, progressivism, Cthulhu, and others. The opposing forces have a lot of monikers as well: traditionalism, Christianity, conservatism, and, my favorite, the Good Guys. Christmas just happens to be one of the places where the Good Guys and Cthulhu fight on ground really favorable to the Good Guys.
That’s because, properly speaking, Christmas should be about as controversial as puppies, kittens, motherhood, and Scotch: Just one of those things everyone agrees is a good thing. Indeed, that’s the underlying assumption among Christmas’s cable-show champions: Christmas used to be something that united us — but not anymore, thanks to the secular humanists, multiculturalists, and other killjoys. And that’s absolutely true. Christmas was uncontroversial for a while. Then it was controversial. Then it was uncontroversial. And so on. That’s because Christmas is in fact older than cable TV.
Christmas should be about as controversial as puppies, kittens, motherhood, and Scotch: Just one of those things everyone agrees is a good thing.
There’s no mention of Jesus’s birthday in the Bible. Indeed, for Christianity’s first few centuries it was a nonissue (perhaps because when the Romans are feeding you to lions, figuring out Jesus’s birthday is a relatively low priority). Death, specifically Jesus’s death, was a much bigger deal theologically. In fact, early Christian writers mocked the Romans for their pagan habit of celebrating birth anniversaries.
Jesus’s birthday only became a priority for the Church when people started to believe he wasn’t a real person but a spirit or some such, according to the aforementioned Christmas scholar, Stephen Nissenbaum. Real humans are born, not invented (Al Gore notwithstanding). The Church reckoned that celebrating Jesus’s birth would be a good way to underline the fact that he was born flesh and blood. “If you want to show that Jesus was a real human being just like every other human being,” Nissenbaum explained, “not just somebody who appeared like a hologram, then what better way to think of him being born in a normal, humble human way than to celebrate his birth?” The iconic crèche and manger scenes so associated with Christmas didn’t become commonplace until the 13th century.
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As for December 25, the Internet, among other sources, tells me in a fairly unified voice that the date was picked because it aligned with numerous pagan holidays associated with the Winter Solstice. We’ve all heard these theories before, and while scholars can debate around the edges, it doesn’t seem like anyone truly disputes the notion that Christmas co-opted a whole lot of Germanic and Nordic traditions. The iconic Santa is more inspired by Odin than the Turkish St. Nicholas, and the Christmas tree has its historical roots in the Saturnalian practice of bringing holly into the home.
Still, long after Christianity had routed the pagans, Christmas remained controversial. The Puritans had huge problems with it. Because the holiday takes place in winter, when there’s not much for farmers to do, it became a kind of spring break in the 16th and 17th centuries. In England, a country with a long and honorable tradition of looking for reasons to get drunk, the twelve days of Christmas became the kind of bacchanalia that would have made a great backdrop for a Damsels Gone Wild video series. Philip Stubbes, a 16th-century Jerry Falwell, decried this hedonism in his pamphlet The Anatomie of Abuses:
That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery, whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.
That wasn’t the only problem with Christmas. Protestants didn’t like the way Catholics observed the holiday, and vice versa. In England, the extravagant Christmas parties thrown by Catholics were seen, as P. J. mentioned, as uncouth, the “trappings of popery” and “rags of the beast” (two fantastic names for an ultramontane punk-rock band). The Catholic Church tried to counteract the problem by emphasizing that Christmastime was a holy celebration, not an excuse to let your freak flag fly. But it ultimately didn’t work. When Cromwell took over, he banned the holiday entirely, something the ACLU only dreams of doing today.
Cromwell’s ban was lifted, but for a long time the popularity of Christmas dwindled in the New World and Britain. By 1820 the English poet and essayist Leigh Hunt wrote that it was a holiday “scarcely worth mention.” It wasn’t quite as forgettable as Arbor Day or the WNBA championships, but it wasn’t the big deal we think of today, either. And the person most responsible for reviving it wasn’t a religious figure at all, but a literary one: Charles Dickens.
Published in 1843, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was a staggering literary success — bigger than Fifty Shades of Grey and The Dadly Virtues combined. By Christmas of 1844, there were no fewer than nine stage productions of it in London. It was a huge sensation that year in New York as well. It popularized the salutation “Merry Christmas.” One critic proclaimed, “If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were ever in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease. The very name of the author predisposes one to the kindlier feelings; and a peep at the Frontispiece sets the animal spirits capering.”
There’s a fascinating debate about how religious A Christmas Carol really is. There are a great many subtle scriptural allusions in the book that are lost on most people, including me; I wouldn’t have caught many of them were it not for Stephen Skelton’s annotated version of the story. On the other hand, while Dickens was a faithful Christian, the story is deeply ecumenical, even secular.
The key to the novella’s appeal was its overpowering sense of nostalgia. “In fighting for Christmas,” G. K. Chesterton observed, Dickens “was fighting for the old European festival, Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking, and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday.” But it went deeper than that. Dickens had a famously rough childhood, and his stories were often child-centric. And so was his idea of Christmas.
Until A Christmas Carol, Christmas was more of a community celebration, a time for revelry. But Dickens carved out Christmas as a special time for children.
Until A Christmas Carol, Christmas was more of a community celebration, a time for revelry. It was a lot like what New Year’s Eve is today. But Dickens carved out Christmas as a special time for children. In the tale, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to his own childhood, where he sees himself abandoned as all the other kids have gone home to be with their families. “The school is not quite deserted,” the Ghost observes. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.” Scrooge sobs at the sight. The Ghost then takes poor Ebenezer to see children playing and making merry with their family. Scrooge exclaims, “What would I not have given to be one of them!” (As Rob Long — someone well acquainted with social ostracism and undesired solitude — points out, it would have been nice if someone, somewhere, had given him a giant turkey.)
Thanks to Charles Dickens, Christmas became a time when parents thought about the Christmas they wished they had had when they were kids. And so they set out to deliver it to their own children. That’s one of the keys to Christmas’s enduring popularity. As Bill Murray says in Scrooged (you knew I’d come back to that), at Christmastime, however briefly, “We are the people we always hoped we would be.”
I am not Christian, but some of my favorite people are (including, among others, my wife, my mother, most of my coworkers and friends, and nearly all of my favorite presidents).
I have no objection to Christians seeking to keep the “Christ in Christmas.” But it seems to me that the war on Christmas has less to do with a desire to keep the holiday somberly sacred and more to do with maintaining an idea of “America, the Way It Used to Be.”
The best offense against humorless prigs isn’t counterveiling humorless priggery. It’s good cheer.
As a conservative, I get that. And it is absolutely true that the people who bang their hemp spoons on their high chairs at “Merry Christmas,” get their dresses over their heads about Nativity scenes, or who think Santa is scarier than Satan — or even the Koch brothers — tend to be humorless prigs.
I’m not normally in the habit of giving advice to Christians about how to observe their faith. But as a tactical matter, if you want to put the Christ back in Christmas, my advice would be to follow Jesus’s exhortation to turn the other cheek. The best offense against humorless prigs isn’t counterveiling humorless priggery. It’s good cheer. If someone gets angry when you say, “Merry Christmas!” chuckle and tell them, “For your sake, I won’t tell Santa about this.”And take comfort in the knowledge that the Christmas haters are not merely losers, they are losing. Most Americans — who spend almost a trillion dollars a year at Christmastime by the way — understand those people are idiots. If anything, Christmas keeps winning in the war on Christmas because Christmas is so much Odin-damn fun! So enjoy the holiday on Dickensian grounds — faith, family, fun all mixed into one. Say “Merry Christmas” with joy in your heart and have a good time — if for no other reason than the fact that nothing pisses off the people who hate Christmas more than people actually enjoying Christmas.
And by all means, let us redouble our efforts in our defensive war against relativism or the relentless erosion of our culture by political correctness. But there are other days of the year to have those arguments. The whole point of Christmas is not to have arguments.
That’s what Thanksgiving dinner is for.
– Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review. This article was adapted from an essay in the new book The Christmas Virtues: A Treasury of Conservative Tales for the Holidays, edited by Jonathan V. Last, a version of which appeared in the December 31, 2015, issue of National Review.