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Have a Holly, Jolly Holiday
Conservatives, Others Angry Over Removals of Word 'Christmas'

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in considering the ongoing war on Christmas, let us begin with the evidence that Mathew Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, calls "Exhibit A."

Said prosecutorial evidence is tiny Ridgeway Elementary School in Ridgeway, Wis. Youngsters are set to perform a play in which the lyrics to "Silent Night," which celebrates the Christ child's birth, have been changed to "Cold in the Night," which do not. The charge, leveled by both Staver's group and the American Family Association, is that this school rewrote a sacred song to erase Christ from Christmas.

Earlier this month, both groups fired off outraged press releases. TV networks reacted with segments. Conservative bloggers howled. The school principal got 1,500 e-mails. One unhappy Christian called Pat Reilly, the school board treasurer, a "spineless liberal [expletive]."

Here's Tucker Carlson of MSNBC, interviewing Staver:

"It is kind of heartening, I think, for Christians to see this, all this outrage, all this fear at Christmastime, you know, Christmas tree, Christmas carol, 'Silent Night'-- oh, that's a, you know, that's a subversive song -- because it means that Christianity isn't dead. It still has the capacity to scare people. It still gives people the creeps."

Giving people "the creeps" at Christmas is a serious thing, so we decided some actual reporting might be in order.

The first thing we found out, contrary to both news releases, is that nobody at the school rewrote anything. The song is part of a copyrighted play. Really in-depth reporting -- making two phone calls -- revealed the offending playwright and composer to be one Dwight Elrich. No one had talked to him until we called.

Here is what we found out:

(a) Elrich was a music director for a choir at Bel Air Presbyterian, former president Ronald and Nancy Reagan's church in California, for decades.

(b) "Cold in the Night" is part of a children's play called "The Little Christmas Tree" (note title). The little tree sings the little song. The little tree is looking for a family to take it home, sort of like Charlie Brown's little tree. The play comes with a "Christian" page, which may be performed or not. In Ridgeway, where the play has been performed for years, it is sung with Christian Christmas songs, including "Angels We Have Heard on High."

(c) Elrich's other musicals: "What in the World Is Christmas?" (Answer: "Kids from around the world celebrating Jesus's birth.") "Christmas in Hawaii," "365 Days of Christmas Each Year!"

(d) "The Little Christmas Tree" has been performed in more than 500 schools and churches across the country for nearly two decades. Mostly churches.

Statement by the defendant:

"I'm just flabbergasted. I'm a choir director in a church! I do Christmas carols in retirement homes! I perform 'Silent Night' 40 or 50 times each year! I thought the play was a really charming, wonderful, positive story about love and acceptance . . . removing it from the Christian tradition was something I never thought anyone could ever come up with. We were telling a story about a little tree, so we used a familiar tune to help the kids get it."

Of course, this is just one exhibit on the prosecutorial table. Let's look at another. Let's go to Fox News. Here's host Bill O'Reilly, in a recent broadcast:

"In Plano, Texas, a school told students they couldn't wear red and green because they are Christmas colors. That's flat-out fascism."

Here's a corresponding memo from Doug Otto, superintendent of schools for Plano:

"The school district does not restrict students or staff from wearing certain color clothes during holiday times or any other school days. . . . Our attorney requested of Mr. O'Reilly that, in the future, he ask his fact checkers to do a more thorough job of confirming the facts before he airs them."

O'Reilly did not correct his broadcast in a prepared statement, instead noting that there was ongoing litigation about other Christmas-related issues at the school.

And . . . oh, you've heard the rest, in this, the Christmas of our discontent. Some of it is actually real.

There is the "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" brouhaha, and the "Christmas tree" vs. "holiday tree" smackdown. Those two issues alone have involved Target, Wal-Mart, Sears, the city of Boston, the state of Georgia, the White House and too many others to count. The AFA and the Liberty Counsel alone have mobilized 1,500 Christian lawyers to do battle.

So far, they've encountered maybe 60 problem areas, Staver says.

"A lot of soldiers in this battle are not going to have much to do but drink eggnog," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who often debates Jerry Falwell and others on these kinds of issues. "We're not out there trying to make this an unpleasant season."

On the other hand: "People are so worried about offending the minority, they go ahead and offend the majority, who are Christians," says Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association.

The War Is On

The "war" is composed of conservative Christian groups railing against "politically correct" advertising campaigns that, they say, do not include the words "Merry Christmas" in sales literature or seasonal greetings. Some municipalities and government institutions -- including the U.S. Capitol for many years -- refer to a Christmas tree as a "holiday tree," also drawing flak.

It is an emotional campaign -- a petition against Target for not including "Christmas" in its advertising drew more than 600,000 signatures -- but it is also an easy one. Virtually all of the stores that conservative groups have targeted have quickly changed their advertising to feature "Christmas" more prominently, as have many of the groups that had "holiday trees."

And despite some high-powered rhetoric -- Fox News host John Gibson says in the subtitle of his book "The War on Christmas" that there is a "liberal plot to ban the sacred Christian holiday" -- neither Gibson, nor anyone at the AFA, the Liberty Counsel, Lynn's group or the ACLU, is aware of an attempt to halt religious observance of Christmas or to stop making it an official federal holiday. And the real irony, religious and academic scholars point out, is that Christmas is observed in one way or another by more Americans than at any point in the nation's history; indeed, more than any nation at any time in history.

Given that, perhaps it's not surprising that substantially more people (52 percent) were worried about the commercialization of Christmas than they were about any opposition to displays of religious symbols in public places (35 percent), according to a new nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center. Some 83 percent of respondents said they preferred "Merry Christmas" to something like "Happy Holidays." But in a follow-up question, a plurality of 45 percent said it really didn't matter much either way.

To Karal Ann Marling, a University of Minnesota professor of popular culture who documented the holiday's evolution in "Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday," the campaign is an attempt to whitewash the nation's religious and ethnic mosaic.

"I don't want them to come to my house and poison my dog, but the religious right wants all of American religious life to be permeated by one point of view, and it's just not so," she says.

"Persecution of Christians, at Christmas? In this country? None that I'm aware of," says James P. Byrd Jr., assistant dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He graces the observation with a gentle laugh, a comforting sound in this suddenly confrontational season.

Instead, Byrd suggests looking at the current fray in a larger context: conservative Christians yearning for what appears to be a simpler time. When Christmas was Christmas, the argument goes.

It might look something like this:

It is about 1950. A good clean snow has fallen. It crunches underfoot as you round the turn into your yard. Darkness is falling. It is not just quiet, it is peaceful. The small lamp in the kitchen window throws a shaft of light onto the snow. Your mother is there, cooking, singing lightly to herself. It will smell like baking, when you walk in, stamping the snow off your boots, throwing off the cold. Presents will be by the tree. Your pop will be in the easy chair, your little sister tramping down the stairs in her angel costume ready to go to the pageant.

Your heart freeze-frames: This is Christmas.

And now you wake up and it's 2005. You go to hear the kid's Christmas play, except by the time it clears all the church-state hurdles the ACLU worries about, it sounds more like "Songs of Many Lands as Sung by 6-Year-Olds." The Christmas Tree at the Capitol in Washington, they call it a "holiday tree" most years now. Even President Bush, a devout Christian, sends out a Christmas card that does not say "Merry Christmas." Now you hear a lot about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and "the holidays."

What is to be made of all this?

Byrd says the attention to other traditions, the growing complexity of American life, is frustrating to some Christians, who grew up accustomed to Christmas being the preeminent holiday.

"It's the concept of the majority, and what rights they have to define American holidays, about what it means to be an American," Byrd says. "The majority of Americans are Christians who celebrate Christmas, and yet there is a sense of alienation that they are still not able to dominate discourse."

And there is one problem with that pristine image of the American Ghost of Christmas Past, he and others say: It never quite existed. "White Christmas" -- which became one of the best-selling songs of all time -- was already lamenting a season "just like the ones I used to know" in 1939. The same year, entrepreneur Charles Howard opened one of the first Santa Claus schools, dismayed by the cynical crush of "bums, ham actors, and thousands of odd job men" who were cashing in by playing the man in red.

A Secular Christmas

Confrontations over Christmas are as old as the day itself. The Bible mentions Christ's birth in a manger, which brings the tradition of the star in the night, the three wise men and many others. But it was nearly 400 years after Christ died before church officials thought to make the date of birth a holiday. This was greatly complicated by the fact that no one knew the exact date. But in 395, church officials set it as Dec. 25, putting it amid a huge pagan festival in ancient Rome known as Saturnalia. The latter was a raucous celebration -- lots of alcohol and sex -- that church officials allowed to continue as a means of attracting converts.

"That made sure the holiday would be observed, but it gave up any real Christian control over it," says Stephen Nissenbaum, author of "The Battle for Christmas."

Across northern Europe, there were pagan celebrations that stemmed from the dark, fallow days of the winter solstice. As Christianity spread, the two often overlapped, even as Europeans began to settle America. The Puritans were horrified at the combination. Finding no mention of Dec. 25 in their Bibles, they banned the holiday as sacrilegious.

"People drank a lot, caroused in the street," says Leigh Schmidt, professor of religion at Princeton University and author of "Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays." "Puritans thought Christmas was the worst day in the year to preach Christ, because people showed up at church after imbibing a lot of rum."

The founding fathers had no Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas, a minor European saint, did not morph into the current image of the gift-laden Santa Claus until the 1820s). There were no Christmas trees (a German import that didn't take root until the 1840s). Dec. 25 wasn't made a federal holiday under the first 17 American presidents (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln). The holiday did not come until 1870, under Ulysses Grant, perhaps one of the least pious of presidents.

As the decades passed, Christmas became a holiday that celebrated the values of home and hearth and family and generosity, not just a Christian rite. There was Santa and the magic of childhood, a particularly Victorian ideal, that went alongside the Christian underpinning.

By the early 1900s, when companies began to learn how much they could commercially exploit the Santa Claus magic (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer began life as a Montgomery Ward advertising gambit) the modern idea of Christmas was born.

Today, secular Hollywood gives us Christmas shows and Christmas specials without end, not to mention Christmas-themed movies. It is virtually impossible to walk into a commercial enterprise in America this week and not be overwhelmed with Christmas symbolism.

Which, says Staver, the Liberty Counsel president, is exactly the point. If stores are going to profit from Christmas, then they should at least acknowledge the day itself. Calling the evergreen tree in the lobby a "holiday tree" is a needless insult, he says.

"It's so obvious, removing the word 'Christmas.' It made a non-controversial issue controversial," he says. He speaks by cell phone from the steps of the federal courthouse in Jacksonville, Fla., where he has filed a request for an emergency injunction to allow a man to install a nativity scene in a public park between two tiny beachfront municipalities. "You come down to the question of 'Why?' Nobody renames Santa Claus or Hanukkah or Rudolph. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. It is exclusive to one thing. To say otherwise is contrary to history. It's an invention."

Historically speaking, academics and scholars agree, he's right: It is a Christmas tree.

You wonder if the Deity thinks that is the point. Or, perhaps, if it misses it entirely.

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