The ‘War on Christmas’ is annoying – but it’s a window into the conservative movement

When you think of Donald Trump’s policy positions, you likely think of his anti-immigration stances, tax cuts for the wealthy, and, of course, the infamous unbuilt border wall. But there’s another policy that Trump speaks about with surprising frequency: saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays.” Think I’m joking? I’m not: he says it all the time, and you can check out this montage if you don’t believe me.

You’re likely rolling your eyes right now, and I don’t blame you; honestly this is a pretty pathetic issue to get riled up about. But Trump’s fixation on Christmas exemplifies an oft-overlooked tactic among U.S. conservatives: self-victimization.

For those unfamiliar with this issue, many social conservatives in the United States believe that there is a concerted effort by liberals to destroy the holiday of Christmas. This might seem a bit odd given the ubiquity of Christmas-related decorations, music, movies, and clothing on display in December. Conservatives point toward the prevalence of “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” as primary evidence.

So why exactly do liberals want to destroy Christmas? In 2004 former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly took time out of his busy schedule sexually harassing women to explain why:

Secular progressives realize that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation, and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition.

But if the secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility.

Conservatives’ objections arguably hit fever pitch in 2005 when George W. Bush sent out a holiday card that did not have the word “Christmas” explicitly printed on it – although no White House card since 1992 had it either. Fox News amplified these concerns, and dubbed it the “War on Christmas.”

So, is “happy holidays” the rallying cry of this 21st century war against organized religion? Not quite. The phrase itself has been in use since at least the 1860s. And Christmas wasn’t always a Christian holiday; while some social conservatives proudly display bumper stickers proclaiming “Keep ‘Christ’ in ‘Christmas,’” Christmas was predated by Pagan celebrations that were appropriated by Christians to help spread Christianity. Celebrating Christmas was even illegal for a period of time in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Admittedly, the contemporary celebration of Christmas in the United States has become more secular, but it’s not because of angry activist atheists. The United States’ population itself is becoming increasingly secular, and even those who are still religious are attending worship services less frequently. As a result, it makes sense that the holiday would change along with its participants.

Furthermore, let’s be honest: the vast majority of how most people celebrate Christmas is completely secular anyway. Alcohol-laden parties, exchanging gifts, kissing under mistletoe, decorating a tree, and making cookies have relatively little–if anything–to do with the birth of Jesus Christ. (Speaking of which, the historical figure considered to be Jesus Christ was probably not even born in December.)

Despite conservative claims to the contrary, I failed to find evidence of any mainstream group trying to actively push a secularized Christmas celebration or agitating businesses to say “happy holidays.” While doing this research, I did hear anecdotes from some older people about anti-Semites intentionally saying, “Merry Christmas” to Jews as a bigoted microaggression. Even if this is the case, there does not appear to be a lot of evidence that these isolated instances of anti-Semitism led to a major movement to attack “the institution of Christmas.”

While there are a number of other holidays that occur in December and January, over 90% of people in the United States celebrate Christmas. According to polling, most people in the United States do not care if someone says “Merry Christmas” or “happy holidays”—except Trump supporters.

Social conservatives sometimes point to some corporations’ choice to say “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” as evidence of a war on Christmas. That’s clearly silly, but I don’t think I could have said it better than Edward O’Donnell, professor of history at The College of the Holy Cross:

[Corporations] leading the relentless charge to transform Christmas into a grotesque exhibition of materialist excess, are now responsible for upholding the true meaning of Christmas? Would anyone take seriously a campaign that urged beer brewers to “put sobriety back into tailgating”?

There is nothing to suggest that Christians are unable to freely practice their religion or properly celebrate Christmas. No anti-Christmas laws have been passed, nor would they pass constitutional muster. Most objections seem focused on the fact that others are not sufficiently expressing a pro-Christian sentiment in December. That’s hardly persecution.

Occasionally there are lawsuits that involve public displays of Christian imagery around the holiday season, but these have nothing to do with preventing Christians from practicing. Rather, most of these lawsuits involve tax dollars paying for religious displays, which is a violation of the First Amendment. In general, Christian imagery is allowed on public land if other religious imagery is also permitted, and the displays are not publicly funded.

Despite all of this, conservatives in the United States continue to complain every year about a so-called War on Christmas. Conservative websites are filled with outlandish memes that argue “people aren’t allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’ anymore.” Former Speaker of the House and noted philanderer Newt Gingrich bizarrely claimed, “No federal official at any level is currently allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas.’” (Spoiler alert: that’s a lie.) Trump recently announced that the War on Christmas has apparently expanded, and that some people want to “rename” Thanksgiving.

These responses are a bit absurd given the banality of the issue, no? But to understand this right-wing phenomenon, it is helpful to look at this not just as an issue of supposed Christian persecution, but more broadly within the perceived oppression of conservatives.

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When examined through the lens of the supposed persecution of conservatives, claims of a “War on Christmas” are actually par for the course: conservatives in the United States routinely argue that most major institutions are out to attack right-wing causes. Entertainment media, academia, tech companies, news media, and scientists are constantly portrayed by conservative media as enemies vying to attack right-wing causes. The “everyone is against us” narrative is pervasive in U.S. right-wing culture.

Far right group Turning Point USA has found incredible success marketing self-victimization to conservatives. Their social media pages are filled with memes and posts claiming that conservatives are hated or called “racist” for being “honest.” One meme has a photo implying that Barack Obama is saying, “No one should face discrimination…well, except gun owners, rednecks, Christians, cops, and conservatives.” Although it may be surprising to people who do not consume right-wing media, this is very common rhetoric on talk radio, Fox News, conservative newspapers, meme sites, and on right-wing blogs. And especially from Donald Trump.

In fact, conservatives have been so persistent in making these claims that many liberals have actually started to agree with them. For example, I can anecdotally attest that many people I have interacted with who are not conservative actually believe that the news media is involved in a left-wing conspiracy to defeat conservatism! When I press them for evidence, they usually fall into a “well, everyone knows that…” territory devoid of any specifics, but it is nevertheless clear that they completely buy into the right-wing narrative.

To be blunt, these are conspiracy theories. However, simply dismissing them as such misses out on the fact that not only do tens (hundreds?) of millions of people in the United States buy into them. This persecution complex, even if driven by conspiratorial thinking, is a driving force in the conservative movement.

From a strategic perspective, these conspiracy theories enshrine conservative victories and rationalize conservative losses. If the Republicans lose, it’s because of the supposed anti-conservative bias of the news media or of Hollywood or of big tech. But if Republicans win, then it is a triumph of an underdog against the most powerful institutions in the nation!

This collective perception of persecution is driven by a number of factors, but age, race, and the urban/rural divide are arguably the most consequential.

It is a fact that that the demographics of conservatives skew old. With old age frequently comes nostalgia for the “good old days.” This is a psychological phenomenon called rosy retrospection, in which people perceive the past to be better than it actually was. Think of Trump’s catchphrase, “Make America Great Again.” What ties this motto together is the last word–again–which is a clear appeal to nostalgia. This yearning for a better time (that likely never existed) and a failure to understand the changing world around them can lead many conservatives to feel misunderstood by and isolated from society.

Of course, not all older people are conservative, and I certainly do not want to be misconstrued as saying that age is the only factor here. As many proponents of the term “OK boomer” pointed out, boomerism is a mentality, not an age. No one single factor contributes to something as complicated as an individual’s political ideology.

It is also uncontroversial to point out that most conservatives are white. As the country becomes more and more racially diverse, the majority of people in the United States will no longer be white by 2050, if not sooner. The tides are slowly turning toward accuracy and fairness, as white, straight, Christians once controlled virtually all institutions of power and were vastly over-represented in media.

From the perspective of privileged groups, this dynamic can represent a zero-sum game. Racial, gendered, religious, and heterosexual privileges are unquestionably and entirely unearned by those who possess them. But as these and other privileges are reigned in, privileged groups experience a tangible loss nonetheless. That, of course, is a good thing; these privileges are unearned and facilitate cruelty. To quote a clichéd phrase: “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Age and race are strong contributing factors to the conservative perception of persecution, but the urban/rural divide is also critical. Although I disagree with much of the politics of many people in rural parts of the United States, I have to admit that I have some sympathy to this specific concern. Virtually all major hubs for the entertainment media and the news media in the United States exist in coastal, urban areas. Even right-wing network Fox News and right-wing newspaper The Wall Street Journal are both headquartered in New York City. Another example is Washington D.C.—the United States’ large coastal capital city which holds tremendous symbolic, as well as literal power. 

Not only is rural life underrepresented and misrepresented in popular entertainment, but also many reporters in the news media are often unaware of their geographic biases. This can have serious implications when natural disasters that could affect coastal urban areas receive far more news coverage than natural disasters that could hit rural areas.

Many conservatives (and all too many clueless “centrist” media personalities) tend to react to this by using rhetoric that seeks to establish rural areas as “real America” and coastal urban areas as somehow less significant. This positioning is heavily problematic, and often doubles as a racist dog whistle, pinning heavily white rural areas against comparatively diverse urban areas.

While other factors also contribute to the conservative perception of persecution, I contend that race, age, and the rural/urban divide are most critical. Notice one topic that’s been absent from most of my analysis thus far: policy. And that’s because most of persecution complex has nothing to do with policy whatsoever; conservative self-victimization is all about culture.

That brings us back to the issue at the beginning of this post: the so-called War on Christmas. There’s no policy discussion there, either! No law is forcing a single person to say “happy holidays” or preventing anyone from saying “Merry Christmas.” Society is changing, and conservatives view this as a threat to their identity. It fuels their pre-conceived notion that conservatives in the United States are being persecuted.

People on the left need to realize that this issue is not really about salutations in December. I cannot count the number of left-leaning people I’ve talked with who have said things along the lines of, “‘War on Christmas’ rhetoric is a bit much, but most people in the United States do celebrate Christmas so perhaps conservatives have a point.” Really? So, Fox News has aired endless segments, boomers on Facebook have shared millions of memes, and countless talk radio hosts have destroyed their vocal cords screaming about the “War on Christmas” out of some pedantic concern about the statistical number of Christmas participants? Give me a break.

I don’t really care if people wish me “happy holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” or even “season’s greetings” — and why should I? However, I do object to the anti-multiculturalism that lies in the subtext of the argument. As we’ve already established, there is not some huge lobby pushing for “Merry Christmas” to be banned. when social conservatives trot out this strawman argument, it creates a reasonable-sounding complaint to couch an objectionable response to a diversifying society.

It reminds me a bit of the debate over whether the United States should establish English as the official language. These initiatives are pushed by racist groups not only to fear-monger about immigrants, but also to lobby for harsh immigration changes. Yet every time they come up, you see no shortage of naïve takes from “centrists” about the practicality of having a national language, as if pragmatic concerns are the driving force behind anti-immigrant groups’ proposals.

If people on the left want to win this debate, they should stop playing by social conservatives’ rules. Of course, they agree that the government shouldn’t tell individuals how to celebrate holidays, but should not cede any ground to the claims of conservative persecution. Point out that passing a living wage, enacting single-payer healthcare, and reforming the criminal justice system are measures that will have more of a positive impact on people’s Christmas celebrations than complaining about the phrase “happy holidays.” After all, people are more likely to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas if they have economic security, if they’re not sick, and if their loved ones are not incarcerated during the holidays.

Culture wars are not won overnight, but maybe the left would stand a better chance if they actually admitted that there is a war going on. If people are going to annually focus on the greetings of cashiers or on Starbucks cups or whatever, people on the left can use this as a great opportunity. Demolish conspiracy theories of conservative persecution and refocus conversations on real issues. Donald Trump and conservative groups have used self-victimization for their own gain for years – this holiday season, let’s deck the halls, don our gay apparel, and end this right-wing trope once and for all.