In the opening sequence of the 1988 film Scrooged, there’s a trailer for a movie called “The Night the Reindeer Died.” In this fictitious 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, rides up on a snowmobile.
As the bullets fly, Majors asks Santa, “Is there a back way out of this place?”
Kris Kringle responds, “Of course there is, Lee, but this is one Santa who’s going out the front door.”
Majors nods silently in admiration of Santa’s grit. But he warns Saint 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.”
Majors then sets off to vanquish the enemies of Yuletide. “Eat this,” he grunts as he mows down the baddies with his modernized Gatling gun.
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. Of course “metaphorical” doesn’t mean fictional. The “war” on poverty is — or was — a real thing; it just wasn’t a war. Of course, the Left has always loved its metaphorical wars, ever since William James announced the pressing need for the “moral equivalent” of war. 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.
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). And then, when people complain about this undeclared war on Christmas, the aggressors mock and ridicule them for paranoia and hyperbole.
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 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. But 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. 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.
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.
Jews have a lot of experience in dealing with the challenges of living in societies where they are religious bystanders and nonconformists. 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 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. 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 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.
There’s no mention of Jesus’s birthday in the Bible. According to the Christmas scholar Stephen Nissenbaum, his birthday became a priority for the Church only when people started to believe he wasn’t a real person but rather a spirit or some such. Real human beings are born, not invented. The Church reckoned that celebrating Jesus’s birth would be a good way to underline the fact that he was born flesh and blood.
The iconic crèche-and-manger scenes so associated with Christmas didn’t become commonplace until the 13th century. 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 as if anyone truly disputes the notion that Christmas co-opted a whole lot of Germanic and Nordic traditions. The iconic Santa is inspired more by Odin than by the Turkish Saint Nicholas, and the Christmas tree has its historical roots in the saturnalian practice of bringing holly into the home.
The Puritans had huge problems with Christmas. 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.
That wasn’t the only problem with Christmas. Protestants didn’t like the way Catholics observed the holiday, and vice versa. 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. By Christmas of 1844, there were no fewer than nine stage productions of it in London. It popularized the salutation “Merry Christmas.” 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. 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 — 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.”
Thanks to 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. I have no objection to Christians’ seeking to keep the “Christ in Christmas,” but it seems to me that today’s effort against the war on Christmas has less to do with a desire to keep the holiday somberly sacred than with maintaining an idea of “America, the Way It Used to Be.”
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” tend to be humorless prigs. And 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 countervailing humorless priggery. It’s good cheer. If someone gets angry when you say “Merry Christmas!” chuckle and tell him, “For your sake, I won’t tell Santa about this.”
The whole point of Christmas is not to have arguments.
That’s what Thanksgiving dinner is for.
– 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.