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 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT