When temperatures drop, the culture wars heat up. For many, Christmas isn't just a time to count blessings with friends and family, don loud sweaters and pound eggnog it's a season so vital that defenders of the faith must remain vigilant lest it be desecrated. "Christmas is under attack in such a sustained and strategized manner that there is, no doubt, a war on Christmas," wrote FOX News host John Gibson in his eponymously titled 2005 book, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse than You Thought.
Certainly the number of revelers who share those sentiments is greater than you think: in a 2006 Chicago Tribune poll, 68% of respondents affirmed their belief in a War on Christmas. But while Gibson and FOX colleague Bill O'Reilly have taken the fight against these left-wing Grinches mainstream, theirs is only the latest skirmish in a battle that's been going on for hundreds of years. The front lines of the War on Christmas were originally manned by none other than the Puritans and not on the side many conservative news anchors might think. Objecting to the yuletide festivities on the grounds that they didn't square with the Bible's teachings, in 1659 the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the holiday; it wasn't reinstated until 1681. For a war often blamed on secular terrorists, these are some pious roots.
Since then, the perpetrators of the struggle against Santa have taken on many forms; just about every major bugbear on the radical left has at one point or another been blamed. In the beginning, of course, there were the Jews. "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas...shows the venom and directness of [their] attack," wrote automaker and notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford in 1921, citing efforts around the country to silence Christmas carolers and suppress demonstrations of religion in schools. By the 1950s, blame had shifted to the Communists. "One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas," screamed a 1959 pamphlet (the overpunctuated title: "There Goes Christmas?!") issued by the newly-formed John Birch Society. The society also assailed United Nations "fanatics" who were trying to "poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda."
Before it became part of mainstream conservative punditry, the leading proponent of the War on Christmas was a former magazine writer and editor named Peter Brimelow. A virulent anti-immigration crusader whose views were considered extreme by mainstream conservative journals like National Review, Brimelow founded a website called VDare.com that soon was at the forefront of the fight to sanctify Christmas cheer. Beginning in 1999, Brimelow ran a competition to spotlight offenders in the War on Christmas. The inaugural villain was the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which earned the dubious honor for hosting a holiday party dubbed "A Celebration of Holiday Traditions." The following year, Amazon.com became a target of Brimelow's wrath for subjecting consumers to the nondenominational greeting "Happy Holidays!" (In 2003, VDare was classified as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center for providing a platform for white nationalist viewpoints.)Outrage over alleged restrictions against Christmas emblems imposed by stores like Wal-Mart and Sears led conservative mouthpieces like Sean Hannity and O'Reilly to take up the cause in earnest. "I think it's all part of the secular progressive agenda...to get Christianity and spirituality out of the public square," O'Reilly said on Nov. 18, 2005. "Because if you look at what happened in Western Europe and Canada, if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage." In an interview with National Review, Gibson lay blame for the phenomenon at the feet of the American Civil Liberties Union: "Generally there is an ACLU component to the Christmas controversy."
So there you have it: the war on Christmas is a godless plot cooked up by a cabal of latte-sipping liberals, greedy retail tycoons, bearded ACLU communists and Ban Ki-moon acolytes who secretly gather in Bay Area synagogues to smoke pot, deface Bibles and perform abortions.
Or maybe the whole thing is just a canard, the backlash against a wave of political correctness that swept the U.S. in the late '90s, resulting in some strange new concessions to cultural sensitivity: cities insisting on calling the telltale conifers "holiday trees," efforts to ban the pleasantry "Merry Christmas" and crackdowns on the use of holiday nativity scenes and other religious iconography. But to many, the War on Christmas is a hyperbolic construct that blows the problem out of proportion. "There is no war on Santa," Michelle Goldberg wrote on Salon.com in 2005. "What there is, rather, is the burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas, assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends, exaggerated anecdotes and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union." According to Max Blumenthal, who published a recent article on the topic, the trope's persistent popularity is fed by financial opportunism: "The Christmas kulturkampf is a growth industry in a shrinking economy, providing an effective boost for conservative fundraising and a ratings bonanza for right-wing media." O'Reilly himself has lent credence to this theory. "Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born," he said on Nov. 29, 2005. "Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable."
Though the hoopla has died down over the last couple years, the battle is still simmering. As Blumenthal notes, on Dec. 2 a Utah state senator sponsored a resolution encouraging stores to greet shoppers with a hearty "Merry Christmas." And last month, James Dobson's Focus on the Family group published a list of retailers divided into three categories: "Christmas-friendly"; "Christmas-negligent"; and "Christmas-offensive." The war rages on.