I wrote this piece two Decembers ago when all the “War on Christmas” brouhaha was getting started thanks to John Gibson’s hysterical (both senses) book by the same name. As you’ll see, this so-called fight is nothing new in a pluralistic society such as ours. People from different backgrounds have had the tough task of coming to terms with each other even when they don’t agree. What is new, as you’ll see, is that America’s Evangelical Protestants, who have been historically concerned about materialism and the desire for things of this world, have become the voice of materialism by insisting on the proper ways in which Target and Wal-Mart and so on do their business. —J.S.

The spirit of Christmas past

Holiday history, today’s culture war and the real meaning of Christmas

Christmas means many things to many people. To some, it means family. To others, it means faith. To Fox News anchor John Gibson, it means war.

His new book, “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Think,” marks a new chapter in America’s ongoing battle between the country’s secular present and its religious past.

“The War on Christmas” is in general a reaction to the so-called left-wing agenda to scour religion from every quarter of public life. In particular, the book lambastes liberals for attempting to purge Christmas of Christian symbolism, sentiment and meaning.

Liberals, Gibson asserts, are forcing everyone via “activist judges” to shun “Merry Christmas.” No schools, courts or government offices can bear any tidings of joy.

The “Christian haters” are allegedly influencing corporate America with their pernicious political correctness. Wal-Mart and Lowe’s advertised “holiday trees” instead of “Christmas trees.” There were even rumors that Target instructed its employees to wish customers “happy holidays.”

It’s one big conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas, say the holiday’s defenders. And it’s another reason that God’s country is going to hell.

“The atheists are winning,” wrote Bill Roe, a columnist for Bluffton Today.

Goodwill toward the right kind of Christian

Fighting back the forces of darkness are the Rev. Jerry Falwell [now deceased], the American Family Association and the Catholic League. Together, they’ve mounted a campaign, called “Friend or Foe,” to boycott retailers who snub Christmas.

Falwell’s campaign vows to help Christians “facing persecution for celebrating Christmas.” Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly said he would not stand aside while “oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces … diminish and denigrate the holiday”

“I’m going to use all the power that I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that,” O’Reilly said on his “Radio Factor.”

Evidently, O’Reilly’s horror campaign hasn’t chilled President Bush’s holiday spirit. The White House mailed 1.4 million Christmas cards that wished friends a happy “holiday season.”

It was enough for one man to scrap the whole notion of goodwill toward men.

“Bush claims to be a born-again evangelical Christian, but he sure doesn’t act like one,” Joseph Farah, editor of the Web site WorldNetDaily.com, told the Washington Post.

“I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it.”

Christmas before Christ

Goodwill may, indeed, be on the wane, if Farah’s trashing of Bush’s holiday card is any indication. If so, it might be a reflection of Christmas’ earlier days, when the season wasn’t about faith, hope and charity as much as it was about partying.

The Norse whooped it up for the winter solstice by burning Yule logs. The longer they burned, the longer they partied, sometimes deep into January.

For the Romans, the holiday was Saturnalia, a week-long nonstop inebriated carnival. Schools closed, courts lay vacant, businesses shut down and people stopped working. The debauchery ended on Dec. 25.

After Constantine Christianized the empire, early church leaders had two problems.

One, they didn’t really know when Jesus was born. Two, they needed to convince people to give up their pagan beliefs and embrace Christianity.

They solved both by co-opting an already established religious holiday, says Nancy White, professor of history at Armstrong Atlantic State University [in Savannah]. Church leaders ordained that Dec. 25 be celebrated as the day of Christ’s birth.

“Early Christians were clever at using existing icons to their advantage,” White says.

The upside was that pagans converted to Christianity. The downside was that they celebrated baby Jesus the way they celebrated Saturnalia and the winter solstice.

That is, by partying.

When the Puritans arrived at Plymouth Rock, Christmas was a day known more for decadence than for reverence. That’s why the intransigent Pilgrims outlawed it in New England for more than two decades.

It was eventually legalized, but not encouraged. Protestant leaders felt Christmas connoted paganism, drunkenness and Catholicism.

Evidently, even Christ was insufficient reason for the season. Christmas wasn’t made a federal holiday until 1870.

Who’s taking Christ out of Christmas?

By then, Christmas had become a respectable holiday made wholesome not by Jesus Christ but by a popular fourth-century legend by the name of St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus.

Santa’s fame began after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The 1822 poem, also called “The Night Before Christmas,” domesticated Christmas, making it a safe and wholesome family holiday.

“It became incorporated into civil society,” White said.

As it grew more popular, America’s growing middle class looked to the past to learn how to celebrate Christmas properly. Over a century, America would borrow from a variety of customs, brought here by immigrants, to create an entirely new Christmas tradition.

At the same time, Christmas became the most lucrative time of the year. Merchants began touting “the shopping season.” Santa took up residence in local shops.

“Christmas in America was grounded in commercialism,” White said.

President Calvin Coolidge gave voice to the forces behind the new American holiday. He said “the chief business of the American people is business,” which gave rise to a growing worry by religious leaders that Christmas was being hijacked by materialism.

Concerns burgeoned over the decades. By 1965, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” served to assuage viewers’ anxiety about the “big commercial racket” by recounting the story of Christ’s birth as the true meaning of Christmas.

Now major Christian organizations are threatening to boycott retailers if they don’t restore Christ as the reason for the shopping season.

“This year’s Christmas ‘defenders’ are not just tolerating commercialization,” Adam Cohen wrote in the New York Times, “they are insisting on it.”

History sometimes makes for strange bedfellows, White says. In this case, the perceived threat of an increasingly secular and diverse society forces religious conservatives to align themselves with their former godless adversary, Corporate America.

Though ironic, it’s not surprising, White says. American history shows a consistent pattern.

“The culture war pits the right wing of the conservative contingent against what is an increasing pluralistic society,” White says. “That has always been a constant in terms of making democracy a reality. This (new fight) is a recent incarnation of something that started a long time ago.”

Savannah Morning News

December 22, 2005