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Anti-Semitic and white privilege strings that pull the 'War on Christmas'

A version of this essay was originally posted Dec. 1, 2008 to Helium Network. Helium is no longer online. This essay is now maintained here, where it has been kept updated.

Each winter, as Christmas nears, Americans are treated to a media creation of the pretended righteous response to a fictitious "War on Christmas." Bill O'Reilly first introduced a Christmas Under Siege segment on The O'Reilly Factor show on Fox News in December 2004; comedian Jon Stewart began mocking it on The Daily Show in December 2005. The theory behind the War on Christmas is that there are legions of anti-Christian or hyper-politically-correct people who are out to remove all references to Christmas from the public square, and that these pseudo-militants need to be stopped before they succeed in eradicating Christmas altogether. The movement's proposed strategy to combat these enemies is simply to beat them at their own game and to make sure that stores, public events, and personal greetings contain as many references to "Christmas" as possible. The word "holiday" won't do it; "holiday" is, in fact, you must know, one of the enemy's tools to kill "Christmas."

Of these early O'Reilly Factor segments that aired during the George W. Bush administration, David Kyle Johnson said, "They were not reporting actual events. Everything they complained about either never even happened or was completely exaggerated." Over a decade later, in 2017, a political action committee called America First Policies released a video advertisement ending with a little white girl saying "Thank you, President Trump, for letting us say Merry Christmas again" — implying, as Chris Tognotti put it, "that former president Barack Obama refused to say the words Merry Christmas, or somehow presided over a country in which people weren't allowed to do so," a claim that is easily factually disproven.

The idea of a War on Christmas may sound laughable, but millions of Americans take this absolutely seriously. Unfortunately, it leads to a strange, indirect form of anti-Semitism, in which the targets of the pro-Christmas warriors are Jewish-run businesses.

Image of elf ornament from Wikimedia Commons. Taken by Jelene Morris. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Boycott

In 2005, the right-wing American Family Association published on its website a list of companies that allegedly "'banned Christmas' from their retail ads, in-store promotions or television commercials." "Banning" Christmas, a term the AFA used imprecisely, only amounted to using the word "Christmas" selectively – some would say judiciously. The full list, as viewed online that December, identified active boycotts against the seven worst corporate offenders. Office Max and Best Buy were tagged with the brief complaints that they produced "no 'Christmas' in their advertising." The online search engine of the office supply company Staples was found to offer merely three results for "Christmas." Kmart dared to refer online customers who "need it by Christmas" to a "Holiday Shipping Dates" section, while Nordstrom, even more egregiously, published a "holiday shipping" schedule that referred to "December 25."

Groups like the AFA do not use the tools of social science or economics to measure which companies neglect Christmas. They do not consider or compare the demographics of the stores' clientele, the percentages of company profits earned during the Christmas season, whether the stores sell items intended to be given as Christmas gifts, or the number of references to "holiday" versus "Christmas." They simply find examples of stores that someone thinks don't look Christmassy enough, and they boycott them.

Other crusaders also put retailers through the wringer. Macy's, after being attacked by Bill O'Reilly of "The O'Reilly Factor" talk show on Fox News, insisted it had not "banned" the phrase "Merry Christmas" but had merely advised employees not to make assumptions about which holidays its customers celebrate. A customer service representative for Land's End made a similar point and was drawn into a weeklong dispute with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. To cure what the Catholic League presented as Land's End's ignorance of its customers' religious preferences, the Catholic League encouraged Catholics to call and request "Christmas" catalogs.

The Catholic League also boycotted Wal-Mart, cited as an offender by the AFA, for one day in November 2005. League president Bill Donohue complained that when he searched Wal-Mart's website for "Hanukkah" or "Kwanzaa," he was given search results of individual items, but when he searched for "Christmas," he was redirected to an entire "Holiday" shopping section. "Wal-Mart is practicing discrimination," Donohue declared, assuming that this special treatment of Christmas implied inferiority. Wal-Mart apologized the next day, and a subsequent search for "Christmas" on their website produced a disorganized list of 7,921 products. One can only hope Donohue was relieved that Christians were no longer being "discriminated" against by having thousands of Christmas products usefully organized in a separate section. In 2008, Wal-Mart's online Christmas items were presented on a page called "The Christmas Shop," and in 2011, they offered a "Christmas layaway program." The company did not, however, abandon its policy of "encouraging employees to say 'Happy Holidays' instead of Merry Christmas." In 2014, two months before the holiday, when one types "Christmas" into the search box, one sees the disorganized list again, now with 63,971 items. Wal-Mart was still promoting Hallowe'en at that time, and it was also possible to search by Christmas-related categories. One month before the holiday, in 2016 there were over 400,000 results and in 2017 there were over 1.2 million results, each with optional organization by 14 categories.

Where's the war?

In 2017, upon the death of Fox News founder Roger Ailes, the Catholic League tweeted: "Roger Ailes did more for America than anyone in television history." To which Amy Sullivan responded: "Yes, clearly without Ailes, Christmas would have lost the war."

Mark Manson wrote in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck about concern over the lack of Christmas trees at malls and similar social crises:
“The writer and media commentator Ryan Holiday refers to this as ‘outrage porn’: rather than report on real stories and real issues, the media find it much easier (and more profitable) to find something mildly offensive, broadcast it to a wide audience, generate outrage, and then broadcast that outrage back across the population in a way that outrages yet another part of the population. This triggers a kind of echo of bullshit pinging back and forth between two imaginary sides, meanwhile distracting everyone from real societal problems.”
The Christmas defenders' complaint is nebulous. First of all, the assumptions behind the movement are unclear. Is the movement centered on employee rights or consumer comfort? Is it about the right to greet someone with "Merry Christmas" or is it about the expectation to be so greeted? Does it acknowledge that Christmas can be referred to in a matter-of-fact way – as two Jews can coherently discuss buying Christmas presents for their Christian relatives and friends – without invoking the word Christmas in a sacred context and without any assumption of bolstering its sanctity? Do the movement's coordinators believe the pro-Christmas-language initiative will benefit non-Christians in any way? Do they care if it does? Secondly, although the AFA and Fox News pundits claim that companies are "banning" Christmas, they have not claimed that Christian clerks or shoppers have felt obligated to suppress their religious identities. In legal terms, they have not claimed injury. Thirdly, the proposed remedy is even fuzzier. Are the Christmas activists arguing that employees' speech and company publications should be required to use the word "Christmas"? If so, how frequently? Or do they merely want employees to be permitted to use their own judgment when interacting with customers? Without answering these questions, the movement in response to the non-existent "War on Christmas" (if the "response" can be dignified as a movement and not just as a media creation) lacks direction, and it tends to wander into anti-Semitic territory.

Sarah Jones said in the New Republic in August 2018 that evangelical leaders invited by Donald Trump to the White House "probably didn’t even believe" him when he delivered to them an "outlandish claim: that more people are saying 'Merry Christmas' now that he’s president." Nonetheless: "Trump thinks there’s a war on, and casts it in terms evangelicals recognize. It’s a war they intend to win."

(That same summer, First Lady Melania Trump was recorded saying: "I'm working ... my a** off on the Christmas stuff, that you know, who gives a f*** about the Christmas stuff and decorations? ... and they said, 'Oh, what about the children that they were separated?' Give me a f****** break." The tape was released in 2020.)

The "War on Christmas" may be a metaphor for the larger idea of a war against white American Christian dominance in general.

"When Trump says he made it safe to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again, it sounds insipid to outsiders," Sarah Posner wrote in her 2020 book Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, "but to the Christian right it simply encapsulates how he is restoring their diminished power."

Where's My Christmas, Mr. Kresge?

In 2005, two-thirds of a million Christians, organized by the American Family Association via an online petition, rushed to condemn the absence of Christian celebration on the part of several large companies. It is unclear whether they realized that these companies were founded mainly by Jews.

Sears was shaped by Julius Rosenwald, who became the second president in 1895 and was the original business partner of founder Richard Sears. Kmart was the child of the S. S. Kresge Corporation, founded by Sebastian Kresge in 1899. Kohl's was founded by Max Kohl in 1962; Home Depot, by Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank in 1979; Staples, by Thomas Stemberg and Leo Kahn in 1985. Macy's, the company against which Bill O'Reilly demanded a simultaneous boycott, became one of the most famous Jewish business success stories after the dry goods store was acquired in 1896 by Isidor and Nathan Straus.

The AFA's 2008 list of "naughty" companies that allegedly failed to mention Christmas early and often included Barnes & Noble, whose chairman Leonard Riggio was a recipient of an award from the Jewish-led Anti-Defamation League for his efforts to educate children against prejudice; Costco, whose CEO James Sinegal was mentored by Jewish businessman Sol Price; and Kroger, which at the time was expanding its selection of kosher food.

Save Merry Christmas, an organization that advocated "celebrating Christmas in stores," used its briefly-lived website (accessed Sept. 2006) to list the names and contact information of 14 CEOs to whom they encouraged Christians to apply pressure. The CEOs' names included Bern, Pressler, Rounick, Schaefer, Ulrich, Wexner, and Zimmer. While it is difficult to demonstrate which of them are Jewish if they choose not to make that part of their public identities, to the casual reader it should seem likely that at least some of them are – and therein lies the point.

When the AFA encouraged its eager boycotters to email Richard Schulze, founder of Best Buy, how many hundreds of thousands of people were able to type that Jewish-sounding name and criticize him for his lack of Christmas spirit? Did they do it without pausing to question whether he might be Jewish, or did they intend to use their own religious holiday to harass someone they believed to be a Jew? Either option is demoralizing.

Of course, when the executive leaders of national and international companies develop their business plans, they must consider not only their own identities but also those of their employees and their customer base. To make an example of New York, about 17 percent of residents of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and suburban Nassau County are Jewish. If the employees and customers of department stores are representative of the general population, then, in about 3 percent of clerk/customer interactions in Brooklyn (where Sears and Target have stores) or Nassau County (where Wal-Mart does business), both clerk and customer are Jewish. No reasonable large-business leader could mandate that all clerks use Christian greetings with all customers, which would lead to a circus of New York Jews routinely wishing each other Merry Christmas, and provides no benefit to Christians except to make a mockery of their holiday by imposing its rituals in retail stores on people who would not otherwise choose to practice them.

That folks, in their righteous response to a fictional War on Christmas, organize boycotts of companies mostly founded by Jews — rather than, for example, taking the more positive, friendly step of promoting the business of Christian-owned and -operated companies — is indicative of something ill-mannered and spiteful about the campaign. Intentionally or not, the subtext seems to be that these Christians are not interested in doing business with non-Christians or less outwardly pious Christians.

Jews Against Christmas

Seen through a different lens, it is easy to find examples of public Christmas displays. There are, as Jon Stewart noted on his comedy hour "The Daily Show" in 2011, ostentatious Christmas displays all over the country and even in the White House, many of which "are subsidized by – uh, what's that thing you don't want to spend on anything? – taxpayer money!" If we are sensitive to the plight of "America's tragically persecuted Christian super-majority" (sarcastically so called by J. Daniel Janzen in Flak Magazine), then we must ask: Who is perpetrating this horrible persecution against the Christians?

It's hard to get a straight answer these days. Precisely because the idea of a "War on Christmas" makes so little sense on its face, the angry movement against it is likely disguising a more serious, deep-seated complaint, one whose true name is not spoken.

The suspicion of a conspiracy to steal Christianity back up the chimney historically has been overtly anti-Semitic. Absence of distinct ill will toward Jews is not a full excuse for participation today in this conspiracy theory. If there are enemies of Christmas, then pro-Christmas activists should have the courage to identify them by name, individually and collectively. Drawing a circle around the supposed culprits in negative space is dishonest. Their vagueness appears to be intended only to avoid charges of bigotry. Those who accuse the ephemeral Christmas enemies of bigotry and bah-humbug should lay themselves bare to examination of whether they, themselves, hold any bigotry and bah-humbug about non-Christian beliefs.

The subtitle to John Gibson's War on Christmas (2005) effusively referenced a "Liberal Plot." More recently, Bodie Hodge, who is associated with the creationist organization Answers in Genesis – USA, published a book in 2013 War on Christmas: Battles in Faith, Tradition, and Religious Expression whose description refers to Christmas as "ground zero in an ongoing culture war". Fox News political analyst Jim Pinkerton (2005) dated the alleged "War on Christmas" back to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1962 decision against prayer in public schools.

Automaker Henry Ford was more blunt in "The International Jew" (1921), a complaint about secularized Christmas and Easter cards. His essay "The International Jew" lists Jewish-led legal assaults on Christian prayer and celebrations in public schools dating back to the turn of the twentieth century. "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and other Christian festivals, and their opposition to certain patriotic songs, shows the venom and directness of that attack," Ford wrote. He also blamed Jews for Christians' own avoidance of preaching in civic contexts: "No President of the United States has yet dared to take his inaugural oath on the open pages of the New Testament – the Jews would denounce him." (Presidents do swear in on Christian Bibles that include the New Testament. Ford's complaint was an attempt to find anti-Christian bias where there was none and to whip up resentment of Jews.)

Such prejudice survives today. For example, while claiming that those most offended by Christmas today are atheists and agnostics, the organization Boycott Watch implicitly admits that the "original complaint" was ascribed to Jews.

Keep Christmas in Kmart

The Knights of Columbus have promoted their "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaign since the 1980s. Part of their message is that, to preserve the meaning of the holiday, Christmas must be understood as a religious holiday, and material gifts must not be given center stage. But the hundreds of thousands of Christians who signed the AFA's boycott had the opposite agenda. A more elegant name for the Christian platform in the War on Christmas could easily be "Keep Christmas in Kmart."

The former homepage of Save Merry Christmas explained the offense as follows:
Each Christmas season, every kind of decoration, advertising gimmick and sales promotion is directing the public to purchase their merchandise for the Christmas celebration...This deliberate and intentional substitution of 'Merry Christmas' with un-celebratory phases are thoughtless, condescending and hurtful."
The complaint seems to be that shoppers appreciate having gimmicky sales promotions directed at them near Christmastime, and that they are insulted only by the stores' failure to pretend that their overpriced junk has anything to do with the Messiah, a ruse that enhances these shoppers' enjoyment of the holiday and without which they feel demeaned.

The hours devoted to church attendance by the average American are already considerably outstripped by the hours he or she devotes to television and Internet. (Only one-third of Americans claim to attend church weekly, and people tend to overreport their church attendance, so the real number is likely much lower.) One might question whether the department store boycotters really want the lion's share of audible references to Christmas to come from commercials rather than church. If the AFA has tapped into a real current of dissatisfaction, then the most common answer would likely come in the unsettling affirmative.

Ironically, Bill O'Reilly is one of the fiercest advocates for the secularization of Christmas. On Dec. 3, 2004, O'Reilly explained to a Jewish caller that Christmas "is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus." Three years later, he answered Rabbi Adam Bernay's question "[W]hat if a company is owned by Jews? Would you still object to no Christmas displays?" as follows: "The objection is based on the federal holiday, Rabbi, not religious connotation. Nobody's asking businesses to promote the divinity of Jesus. We're just asking stores that profit from Christmas to acknowledge Christmas." By calling Jesus a "philosopher," identifying Christmas as a government holiday, and arguing that Jewish merchants should "acknowledge Christmas" in a manner above and beyond selling Christmas products and welcoming Christian shoppers, O'Reilly laid out a strategy for stripping Christmas of its religious content and converting it into a department store holiday.

Adam Cohen's New York Times opinion piece in 2005 brazenly declared, "Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They're for it." But he concluded, hopefully, that the "smack-down attitude toward non-observers...does not, however, appear to be catching on with the public. That may be because most Americans do not recognize this commercialized, mean-spirited Christmas as their own."

One could always argue that it seems far more "thoughtless, condescending, and hurtful" toward Christians to outwardly associate the birth of their Messiah with coffeemakers and Barbie dolls, or with crazed shopping behavior such as that which led to the fatal trampling of a Wal-Mart employee on the day after Thanksgiving in 2008. How would it be more respectful to Christianity to acknowledge these shoppers as "Christmas tramplers" rather than "holiday tramplers"?

"It's as though the 'War on Christmas' has become a rote observance, devoid of all its original spiritual meaning," Jon Stewart concluded in 2012.

Whether rote or sincere, it remained popular: that same year, a survey with goofy holiday questions from Public Policy Polling found that 47 percent of respondents believed there was a War on Christmas and another 13 percent weren't sure.

During the presidential campaign in 2015, Donald Trump threatened to boycott Starbucks because its disposable coffee cups were insufficiently Christmasy. In December 2016, after Trump had been elected but before he was inaugurated, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told Sean Hannity on Fox News: "You can say again, ‘Merry Christmas,’ because Donald Trump is now the’s not a pejorative word anymore."

Religious proselytization

In 2015, Wisconsin Rep. Scott Allen posted a Christmas message on the official “Wisconsin Assembly Republicans” YouTube channel, quoting the Bible to warn non-Christians that they are people "who shrink back and are destroyed."

In 2016, the Republican National Committee prepared a Christmas message: "Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King." Some questioned whether a political parallel to "new King" was intended. In 2017, Trump began insisting as early as July that he would resurrect the word "Christmas." “We are getting near the beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore," he told the Values Voter Summit in October.

White Privilege in the War on Christmas

The War on Christmas has had anti-black as well as anti-Jewish manifestations. Ebony Magazine wrote in 2013 that Megyn Kelly of Fox News was "declaring nonsensically that the fictional character of Santa Claus 'just is White'". Such antics reveal that

"the imagined war on Christmas has become an equally farcical war on Whiteness in the minds of those sad right-wing warriors.

The next week, 'Duck Dynasty’s' Phil Robertson also became a martyr for the White right, after A&E briefly suspended him for holding forth on the nastiness of gay sex while insisting African Americans were happy in the Jim Crow South. The new hysteria and hypocrisy was crystallized by one surreal fact: While paranoid White righties were fighting for their allegedly endangered right to celebrate Christmas (with their White Santa), they could watch a 'Duck Dynasty' Christmas marathon on A&E, underscoring that there’s neither a war on Christmas nor on bigoted pseudo-Christians like Robertson. But there’s a lot of cash to be made, and fear to be stoked, by claiming both.

Kelly and Robertson and kindred spirits like Sarah Palin charted a bold new civil rights frontier in 2013: fighting for the right of White people to say false, stupid and bigoted things without facing criticism, let alone paying any real penalty."
Or, as David Kyle Johnson explained:
"...when Megyn Kelly insists that Santa is, and should remain, white, she plays a part in the fight for white social dominance, even though she is just, as Jon Stewart put it, 'expressing anger and victimization over the loss of absolute power and reframing it as persecution of real America by minorities, freeloaders and socialists'..."
(Apart from the psychological or political need of some white people for Santa to be white, it's not even historically accurate for this fictional character, since, as Johnson pointed out, "Bill O’Reilly tried to back up Megyn with a history of Santa Claus tracing back to St. Nicholas, but even in the painting O’Reilly presented, Nicholas had brown skin....Complicating matters further is the fact Santa is not based primarily on St. Nicholas; Belsnickle, Krampus, Odin and a pagan fertility god called 'claus', most of which have a dark face or appearance.")

Paul Nehlen, who ran unsuccessfully against Paul Ryan in a 2016 primary election, the following year was "tweeting 'It's okay to be white' which is," Justin Rosario explained, "what white nationalists have been telling themselves because they like to pretend that white people are 'under attack' for being white."

For further description of how this kind of white privilege works, see Ta-Nehisi Coates' explanation of why white people should refrain from singing along to songs that contain the 'n-word.' It illuminates one aspect of white privilege. Coates said:

"When you're white in this country, you're taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything....I mean, you're conditioned this way...the laws and the culture tell you this. You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however, and people just gotta accommodate themselves to you. So here comes this word that you feel like you invented. And now somebody's going to tell you how to use a word that you invented. You know? 'Why can't I use it? Everyone else gets to use it. That's racism that I don't get to use it. That's racism against me! You know, I have to inconvenience myself and hear this song and I can't sing along! How come I can't sing along?' I think that, for white people, the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use [the 'n-word'] is actually very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can't join in and do. So I think there's actually a lot to be learned from refraining [from saying that word]."
This remark, although not specifically about the War on Christmas campaign, can be used to interpret it. The insistence that one can use the word "Christmas" however one likes, in whatever context one likes, in conversation with whomever one likes, without regard to the accuracy or legality of the statement or anyone else's feelings about it, is founded in a sense that one owns the public space. This is shown when people use the word "Christmas" as a stake to hold up the army tent. Imagining and fighting in a "War on Christmas" turns Christmas into a symbol of power and an attempt to maintain a historically privileged status in framing national self-understanding and controlling dialogue. It is an attempt to end inclusive speech and replace it with exclusive speech so that non-Christians remain "minorities." It is about Christian privilege. In the US, that is mostly white Christian privilege.

The claim that something called "cancel culture" poses a risk, as Michael Hobbes wrote in July 2020, "is nothing more than the latest repackaging of the argument that the true threat to liberalism resides not in lawmakers or large corporations but in overly sensitive college students and random social media users. It is no more sophisticated than the 'war on Christmas' and has the same goal: to imply that those pushing back against injustice are equivalent to the injustice itself."

What Do You Have Against Thursday?

President Bush sent a photograph of the White House pets with wishes for a good "holiday" to over a million people in 2005. editor Joseph Farah broadcast his petulant reaction to Bush's neutral word choice: he destroyed the card. In 2007, the White House sent a more overtly religious card, including wishes for a "blessed season" with a passage from the Biblical prophet Nehemiah, but still, the card avoided the controversial word "Christmas."

It is puzzling why the words "holiday" or "season" should be deemed offensive simply because they are vague and inclusive. The Hebrew and Yiddish expressions "chag sameach" and "good yontif" translate as "happy holiday," and Jews use them to refer to the Jewish holiday du jour, the identity of which should be obvious as a matter of the current date. So, too, when one wishes another "Have a nice day," it would be unexpected to receive an accusation of waging a "War on Thursday" because of a failure to specify the day of the week. This is why it is strange and inconsistent that, when one wishes another a pleasant "holiday" (etymology: "holy day"), one should be cast as a grinch or a militant atheist for failing to specify the holy day in question.

Perhaps the English phrase "Happy Holidays" offends some members of the majority religion precisely because it is designed to be inclusive to people of all religions, races, and nationalities who enjoy the Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's season. Such people profess to feel that the implicit admission of the existence of other holidays somehow diminishes their enjoyment of their own holiday. This resembles a child boycotting her own birthday cake because it isn't sold with her name already written on it. She can still eat the cake. The cake was sold with a blank space to ice a child's name because that kid isn't the only kid in the world who's having a birthday.

A brief satire in 2017, The War on Christmas by Jaime Horio, pinpoints the petulance of the complaint.

The Boston Globe's editorial on Dec. 3, 2012 put it well: "The conservative attack dogs ought to remember that the Christmas spirit is best expressed through charity, forgiveness, and merriment — not shouting from the bully pulpit or through a bullhorn." Those being shouted at, the Globe noted, "for the most part, just want to make sure everyone feels welcome during the holiday season."


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