The Battle Between "Happy Holidays" & "Merry Christmas" Goes Way Deeper Than You Think

by Sophie Kleeman
Rebecca Sapp, Win McNamee/Getty Images; JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

If you switched on Fox News or Comedy Central around this time of year a decade ago, an epic network television food fight greeted you. On one side were Christmas crusaders who loudly defended America from what they saw as creeping political correctness and liberal atheism. On the other side were comedy show hosts, who branded the Christmas crusaders as "''Murica" robots and fought against their narrative with a particularly biting form of disbelief. Despite its long history, the "war on Christmas" has largely lost its juice today.

The big names who did battle in it—Bill O'Reilly, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert—have moved on (or, in O'Reilly's case, been forced out). The outrage machine found new targets and Americans now have other things to worry about, like nuclear war and the gutting of the welfare state. But there's one person who still waves his Christmas warrior sword high and proud: President Trump.

He claimed in mid-October that his administration brought "Merry Christmas" back. And if you look back at the war on Christmas through Cheeto-colored glasses, it all makes a shocking amount of sense. Trump's rhetoric mirrors so much of the conversation around the war on Christmas: fears about moving away from "traditional American values," perceived attacks on Christian morals, and a disdain for political correctness.

Bustle asked a few people who were involved in this narrative to reflect on how it began, how it evolved, and how it ended up on the White House's doorstep. Their interviews have been condensed and edited.

John Gibson, former Fox News anchor and radio host, and author of the 2005 book The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought: The amount of trouble it caused was way more than I would have expected ... I became this guy who created this "phony" thing — [it's that] "phony" war on Christmas.

...I was on Bill's [O'Reilly] show — I wrote three books. And of course if you write a book at Fox, you got on the shows ... I don't remember exactly how this went down when he had me on for the war on Christmas, but undoubtedly he moved the conversation to his particular view of this. Which was, you know, the uttering of Merry Christmas.

David Javerbaum, former head writer for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart: You know, [the war on Christmas] was just one of any number of dozens of stupid right-wing non-issues that are brought up that The Daily Show attacked. It was just a regular thing, the usual, you know, thing about butthurt old white men looking to feel persecuted, despite every piece of evidence to the contrary.

I think Jon [Stewart] and the other writers and the other producers who spend their day in the basement looking after hour after hour of Fox News and stuff — which is really heroic work, it's like working in a sewer — they would just find tons of stuff. And it was very easy to make fun of the war on Christmas.

Gibson: Sometimes the reason this was happening was somebody was taking it upon themselves to, you know, make this ruling — a mayor, a county supervisor, a county administrator, school superintendent, someone like that. And sometimes, they were also being threatened by the ACLU. The ACLU would send out letters in the fall saying, you know, careful! Don't be mixing up religious symbols and, you know, public school, public property and public school events and so forth.

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief: Culture warriors have spread the myth of this fanciful war on Christmas for years, and it's just not true. Christmas celebrations in this country are alive and well.

In 2013, Megyn Kelly aired a now-infamous segment on her Fox News show about Santa's ethnicity. It discussed a Slate essay titled "Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore." The writer, Aisha Harris, had asked, "Isn't it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?" Kelly's response: "For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white." Bustle reached out multiple times to a representative for Kelly, but did not receive a response.

Aisha Harris, culture writer for Slate and host of the podcast Represent: I got a ton of hate mail/tweets (slurs, epithets, the works), and still do every year when the piece resurfaces again around the holidays. Though not as much as that initial wave, obviously. I also have gotten some cool art sent to me with penguins dressed as Santa, and I remember SNL doing a sketch based off of the controversy, featuring Kenan Thompson as Santa, a week or two after the piece blew up.

David Haglund, former senior editor at Slate who edited Harris' piece: Certainly when writing that headline I thought, oh, this might get some attention. My memory is that it didn't get that much attention until Megyn Kelly talked about it.

...One thing I do remember from working on that piece is that, you know, it's certainly not alone among other questionable things [Kelly's] said about race. I mean, in some ways, I don't think it's the worst thing that she's said. So it does seem to fit something of a pattern that she had at Fox.

Matt Sharp, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy organization that has been designated an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center: Unfortunately, [the war on Christmas is] part of a larger cultural battle. You look at situations like the case we argued at the Supreme Court [recently] — Masterpiece cake shop with Jack Phillips. Christian baker who was trying to operate his business consistent with his beliefs … We see the state of Colorado coming after him and saying sorry, you can't operate your business and hold those beliefs in that manner.

Andrew Hartman, professor of history at Illinois State University, author of A War for the Soul of America, a book about the culture wars: When conservative Christians began to complain about secularism, really beginning in the 1960s, and then this really picked up steam in the 70s, they had a point ... You get a series of [Supreme Court] decisions, but the most famous one — or infamous one, depending on who you ask — is the Engel v. Vitale decision in 1962, which outlaws prayer in school. And this decision just caused a massive uproar amongst religious conservatives.

...And so going after secular humanism on one level was a way to fight back against what felt like an attack on Christianity, or an attack on religious expression.

Trump has readily adopted O'Reilly's broader approach to the war on Christmas. Looking at the last 15 years, people who were in the business of the war on Christmas say you can connect the dots between its rhetoric and some of Trump's current talking points.

Javerbaum: I think you look back on it, and clearly everything — it's a cause and effect. Everything leads to what's happening now. Everything that came before this on Fox was a prelude to what's happening now. Every single thing. So this was absolutely part of that.

Gibson: Trump has a special skill at sort of figuring out, like doctors do, how you hit the knee and make it jerk.

...If you wanna say — Donald Trump voters are the same people who, you know, talk about the war on Christmas, talk about the wall, talk about an immigration ban, yeah.

Hartman: The key point ... is we take these cultural expressions seriously, because yeah, ok, so Fox News is sort of doing this to gin up ratings. They're all about profit, of course. But if a lot of people are sort of eating this stuff up, there's a larger historical or social reason for that.

One of the first people to push the modern war on Christmas narrative was Peter Brimelow, who's been called a white nationalist and a "leading anti-immigrant activist" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He's talked about it since the late 1990s, and continues to write about it for his far-right website, VDARE. VDARE's war on Christmas crusade is a distant cousin to wars-on-Christmas past: Noted anti-semite Henry Ford once published a collection of pamphlets called "The International Jew," writing, "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas … shows the venom and directness of [their] attack." In the 1950s, the far-right John Birch Society railed against communists for allegedly trying "to take Christ out of Christmas." Sound familiar?

Hartman: If you think about the sort of cycles of culture wars throughout American history, they seem most intense during periods of seemingly rapid social transformation. There was a great deal of it in the 1850s. A lot of nativism in the 1920s.

...So Stewart and Colbert ... made fun of the whole notion of the war on Christmas. To me the problem with that isn't that they alienated conservatives — conservatives were going to be alienated no matter what—the problem is that the audience for Stewart and Colbert, the people who like this kind of stuff, I think don't have a sort of keen insight into the phenomenon.

Javerbaum: Yeah, we hated what they were doing. We made fun of it, but all of us there are comedy writers first. And we're not political activists per se. No one leaves the show and goes on to work for some liberal group. We all work on other comedy shows. So we're just looking for comedy that we can write that has a very clear point of view. The war on Christmas had [that].

...What else could we do, not do it? I mean, our job is to write jokes about something else. That's the game. The game always has been, people do ridiculous things, and then satirists make fun of them.

The war on Christmas clearly has fallen off the radar since its "Santa just is white" peak a few years ago. And ironically, Trump's presidency appears to be part of why its relevance has faded.

Hartman: The coded rhetoric doesn't work as well anymore because [Trump's] got openly racist things to say. And sexist.

Javerbaum: There's other, larger things [to worry about].

...When the tumor was just a small little tumor that was just a little melanoma on your skin, and now it's a great big thing that's going to kill you, you look back fondly on the time when it was just a small little melanoma on your skin.