Hendrik Hertzberg: The "War" on Christmas

Roundup: Talking About History

...Christmas itself, in something like its recognizably modern form, with gifts and cards and elves, dates from the early nineteenth century. The War on Christmas seems to have come along around a hundred years later, with the publication of “The International Jew,” by Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, whom fate later punished by arranging to have his fortune diverted to the sappy, do-gooder Ford Foundation. “It is not religious tolerance in the midst of religious difference, but religious attack that they”—the Jews—“preach and practice,” he wrote. “The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and certain patriotic songs shows that.” Ford’s anti-Semitism has not aged well, thanks to the later excesses of its European adherents, but by drawing a connection between Christmasbashing and patriotism-scorning he pointed the way for future Christmas warriors.

Over the next few decades, when the country was preoccupied with the Depression, the Second World War, and going to movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the W. on C. went into remission. But at the end of the placid nineteen-fifties the John Birch Society, a pioneering organization of the bug-eyed right, took up the Yuletide cudgels. As Michelle Goldberg recalled recently in Salon, a 1959 Birch pamphlet warned that “the Reds” and “the U.N. fanatics” had launched an “assault on Christmas” as “part of a much broader plan, not only to promote the U.N., but to destroy all religious beliefs and customs.” The enemy’s strategy, the Birchers warned, was to aim at the soft underbelly and shake it like a bowlful of jelly. “What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize U.N. symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.” The focus on department stores was a prophetic insight, but its full potential as a weapon in Christmas war-fighting was not realized until the next century.

Today’s Christmas Pentagon is the Fox News Channel, which during a recent five-day period carried no fewer than fifty-eight different segments about the ongoing struggle, some of them labelled “Christmas under attack.” One of Fox’s on-air warriors is John Gibson, whose new book, “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought,” presents itself as the definitive word. So one opens it eagerly with hopes of learning what this war actually consists of. These hopes are soon dashed—or, rather, fulfilled, since it turns out to consist of very little. Gibson provides a half-dozen or so anecdotes, padded out to stupefying length, in which a school board or a city hall renames its Christmas break a winter break or declines to rename its winter break a Christmas break, or removes Christmas trees from the lobbies of government buildings and then restores them after people complain. “The war on Christmas,” the author concludes triumphantly, “is joined.”...

Read entire article at New Yorker

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