Welcome once again to the most wonderful time of the year. Here in Houston the air is cool, the streets in River Oaks and Upper Kirby are festive as festive can be, gingerbread and peppermint-flavored everything adorns local drink menus, and the giant, soul-eating kraken that lives underneath the Galleria is already calling her annual sacrifices to her.
It's also a time to watch some of my fellow Houstonians re-apply their "Keep Christ in Christmas" bumper stickers so that they can't be mistaken for being on the wrong side of the totally made-up "War on Christmas." Every year there's yet another batch of yokels all eaten up with the belief that Christmas is somehow under attack from secular forces in order to, I don't know, make Jesus cry or something. It's martyrdom fan fiction written by people who have only the firstiest of First World problems.
While I could sit here for 700 words and lace a logical explanation about why the "War on Christmas" is stupid with penis jokes, instead I've got a better idea. If you've clicked on this link in a frothy rage, I want to tell you a few things you might not have realized about this war against the atheist liberal scum you think you're waging.
5. The "War" Was Started By the John Birch Society: If you've never heard of the John Birch Society then you probably get a better night's sleep than I do. Founder Robert Welch, a candy manufacturer, started off with a fairly legitimate organization dedicated to fighting communism in 1958, but like most people who made fighting communism a life-long goal what he started turned into a paranoid conspiracy that accused everything from fluoridation of water to the Book of the Month Club to being sinister, subliminal plots from hidden American commies to overthrow the capitalist nation.
One of their earliest campaigns, though, was the idea that Christ was being eradicated from Christmas celebrations as a classic communist strike at undermining religious belief in order to make people less able to resist the state. From the 1959 pamphlet "There Goes Christmas?!" by Hubert Kregeloh:
"The UN fanatics launched their assault on Christmas in 1958, but too late to get very far before the holy day was at hand. They are already busy, however, at this very moment, on efforts to poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda. What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations."
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4. Using Xmas Instead of Christmas is Older Than American Secularism: The most common example of a Christian casualty in the "War on Christmas" is the fact that so many people abbreviate the holiday as Xmas. Clearly it's the work of rabid atheists attempting to banish Christ from his own birthday (Which it isn't, but for the sake of argument I happily acknowledge that it's the day Christians celebrate Christ's birth). This fixation ignores the fact that even people that regular write Xmas, never say it that way out loud any more than someone pronounces Mrs. as Mars.
The practice of abbreviating Christ's name with an X actually started at least in the first century, and appears in several early Greek New Testaments. X represents the Greek letter "chi", and was often used by copyist for the same reason people use it today; to cut down on space and effort. In the 15th century, when printing presses came into play, printers still would abbreviate Christ, as well as Christian, Christina, and other derivatives with an X to cut costs. Newspapers and other publications picked it up from there.
They assumed everyone was smart enough to know Xmas stood for Christmas since it's been that way for almost as long as the New Testament has been around.
3. Christmas as You Understand It Is Very, Very Recent: For most of its history, America really hasn't given a damn about Christmas. It wasn't a federal holiday until 1870, and for many years after that the idea that private businesses should give the day off to all their employees wasn't standard. Before 1870, Congress was in session on December 25, and in early America several places outright banned the holiday as too Catholic or as a form of idolatry. The general attitude was that if you liked Christmas, have a Christmas. The rest of the country got on how it wanted.
Or it tried to at any rate... drunken riots on Christmas were actually the reason that New York City organized its first police force, and the holiday was regarded as worse than Halloween in terms of mischief and vandalism.
The reason we celebrate Christmas the way we do today is the same reason we celebrate most holidays the way we do. Around the time of the Civil War, there was a concerted effort to bolster a sense of unity through holidays like Thanksgiving (Which no one else ever cared about either), and a big part of that was appealing to people's sense of religion and family to basically create a forced day of generosity and brotherhood. Once retailers in the late 19th century realized that you could exploit that to make money on presents, Christmas as we know it was born.
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2. Protestantism Helped Define the Holiday as Family, Not Religiously-Oriented: One out of every two Americans identifies as some sort of Protestant, which means that Protestantism has a huge influence on the way America thinks about its culture. While you find devout Roman Catholics in church on Christmas Day, even after midnight Mass the night before, a steadily increasing number of Protestant churches are closed.
Around the time that Christmas was taking off in a new, unified form here in America, an Anglican named Edward White Benson, who later served as Archbishop of Canterbury, crafted a potent combination of scripture lessons and carols specifically for the holiday season that caught on in a big way for Christmas Eve services. By 1920 The Service of Lessons and Carols had pretty much become the de facto manner of Christmas Eve worship by the majority of Americans. Many churches hold multiple services to accommodate demand.
Then in the 1950s America became almost radically focused on a Norman Rockwell vision of the family as the country's ideal. According to a 2008 article in Time, "The image of family gathered around the tree became a Christmas icon that rivaled the baby Jesus. And Christmas Eve services -- with their pageantry and familiar traditions -- became just one part of the celebration, after the family dinner and before the opening of presents."
So when you wonder why folks became more focused on presents and trees than going to church when referring to Christmas, it's because churches openly began catering to the idea that the holiday be split between religious significance and secular family life, including gift giving commercialism.
1. There's No War Because You Already Won: The most annoying thing about the "War on Christmas" is the way that certain religious people use it to portray themselves as oppressed minorities bravely fighting for their cultural identity in a sea of intolerant fascism. It's sort of like how Ann Romney tried to convince America that she knew what life was like for the 99 percent because at one point her family was forced to live on dividends from stock. In both cases there is a whole lot of not knowing what in the hell you're talking about.
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Statistically, more than three out of every four people in America identify as Christians. That means they still outnumber the second largest group, the non-religious, by more than 600 percent. The only people that win wars against those odds are Scotsmen and characters from Star Wars.
If you look at the list of retailers that have been attacked for using non-Christmas terms like Happy Holidays and Seasons' Greetings over the last decade, you see that the second anyone says boo to a major retailer for not explicitly using the word Christmas in its advertising they immediately fix that. Wal-Mart responded to repeated boycott threats by the Catholic League in 2006 by making the word Christmas more prominent. The American Family Associate managed to forces advertising changes in Target's ads the next year over threat of a boycott, and also shifted Home Depot on the same terms in 2008.
I find it somewhat ironic that in a country where Christmas was outright banned in places, the most vocal infantrymen in the "War on Christmas" seem most interested in making sure that every store and institution in America puts Christ's name as prominently as possible and to the exclusion of all else. Considering what we know about the holiday's history here, that sounds more like an offensive than a defense to me.