Skip to main content

What's really behind 'war on Christmas'

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 7:30 AM EST, Fri December 7, 2012
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York is lit despite what some say is a war on Christmas.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York is lit despite what some say is a war on Christmas.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tim Stanley: It's not Christmas without "War on Christmas," a cooked up culture crisis
  • This time, politics in mix, with White House, others using holidays to score points, he says
  • He says "war" really reflects failure to reconcile different interests in democratic society
  • Stanley: Battle is over what goes on in public sphere. One solution? Have sense of humor

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- No Christmas is complete without a war on Christmas, and this year it's being fought on several fronts. NPR reported the White House attacking Republican intransigence over the debt talks in a report with a section titled "The Holiday Season is No Time to Threaten Middle-Class Pocketbooks." That prompted the Daily Caller to respond with the headline, "Disagreeing with Obama can ruin Christmas, says White House report." In the eyes of some liberals, the Republicans have become the party of the Grinch.

This must be news to conservatives who have always insisted that it's the Democrats who want to steal Christmas. To them, the war is being waged by liberal secularists against patriotic American Christians who want to celebrate the holiday loudly and publicly in the way Baby Jesus intended. Pat Robertson has hit out at those "miserable" atheists and Fox News has gone after Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee for deciding not to host a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

In other words, although the war on Christmas phenomenon might have something to do with rising unbelief among Americans, more likely it reflects growing partisanship among politicians. In an age when nothing is so sacred it can't be used to hurt a political opponent, Christmas is one more weapon that statesmen and stateswomen can use against each other.

But the meaning of the war on Christmas is actually bigger than partisan tomfoolery and isn't limited to right-wing fantasy, either. Some of it exposes genuine tensions within American politics and society.

Take the decision of the Santa Monica City Council to end the tradition of erecting nativity scenes or other displays in Palisades Park. The right to display a scene was hitherto decided by lottery, and the previous winter season atheists won 11 out of 14 spaces, which they used to erect enormous critiques of Christianity.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In response, locals lobbied the council to establish stricter guidelines about who could take part. The council decided that would be discriminatory, but it also didn't want to leave the system open to abuse by more offensive groups like neo-Nazis. So it decided the displays would have to stop altogether. That decision was upheld in November by a federal judge.

The local secularists were thrilled. "The free thinkers ... played the game of the religionists and they outsmarted them," Annie Laurie Gaylor told the Huffington Post. "They showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone."

This story is a classic example of the failure to reconcile different interests within a democratic society. Nobody involved was technically wrong. The secularist campaigners were right to say that the nativity displays should be open to everyone because they were on public land. Their Christian opponents were right to insist that anything erected to celebrate Christmas ought to give some priority to celebrating Christmas. And the council was right that, in the absence of consensus, it was better to allow no displays at all. The tragedy being that Gaylor's campaign ended up destroying a perfectly wonderful tradition in the name of fairness. And that hardly seems fair.

Lighting the Capitol Christmas tree
Veteran opens Santa's workshop
First lady unveils Christmas decorations
Watch thief steal Christmas decorations

Unfortunately, Gaylor gets around almost as much as Santa Claus; now she's involved in an effort to take down a Jesus-shaped war memorial near a popular ski resort in Montana. There's a thin line between this sort of secularist activism and the politics of personal taste. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a jewelry shop manager called the cops on Salvation Army bell ringers because the noise was "raising her blood pressure and making her hate Christmas." In Colorado Springs, the Salvation Army was stopped from bell ringing because of a new ban on panhandling.

What's really happening isn't just a targeted, political war on Christmas but a more general battle for control of what goes on in the public sphere, especially around the holidays. Undoubtedly, some of this is motivated by anti-religious secularism. But it's also the product of living in a crowded multicultural environment where everyone risks getting on each other's nerves -- and we have to find better ways of getting along.

One of the reasons why "Happy Holidays" has risen in use as an alternative seasonal greeting to "Merry Christmas" is simply that it helps avoid occasions of offense and confrontation. Religious conservatives complain that it's a surrender to militant atheism. But if that's the case then the surrender is widespread. George W. Bush's White House cards wished everyone a happy "holiday season" and even Fox News has its own Holiday Wish List.

If there is a solution to this controversy then perhaps it's to try to treat it with a dash of humor and disdain. The Rev. Jonathan Morris was recently invited on "Fox and Friends" to unleash hell on the war on Christmas. Instead, he did the opposite. After pointing out that Christians have throughout the centuries taken much worse persecution (and, I might add, dished out a bit, too) he concluded, "If our Christmas is going to be all about getting upset at people trying to take away Christmas, isn't that silly, too?" Amen, Father.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT