Donald Trump promised to bring “Merry Christmas” back, and on his first Noel as president he seems to have done that — and more.
Americans were already in a long-standing debate about whether there was a war on Christmas, but Trump’s presidential battle cry about the greeting appears to have made people even more deliberate about what they say in December. And whether that means they feel more liberated, more hesitant or merely in a knot of mental machinations at the moment before a potential greeting exchange, they often all share one common thing, somewhere in their brain: Donald J. Trump.
“Sometimes I feel like saying ‘Merry Christmas,’ but this is D.C. and I don’t want to offend people, and I know most people here don’t like Trump. He talks about [saying Merry Christmas] a lot,” said Steven Abebe, 47, an Uber driver from Arlington who was doing pickups downtown one night this week. Abebe, a Christian originally from Ethiopia, celebrates Christmas and wants to say it. “Now I’m not sure what to say. I try to wait to see what the other person says or does first.”
Trump Christmas Brain seems to play out differently from person to person. Some normally on team “Merry Christmas” this year switched — sort of like Abebe — and chose “Happy Holidays” on their family cards deliberately to troll their Trump-loving relatives and friends. Others are busy trying to convince their friends not to let Trump-ism demolish their love of the explicit greeting — and the holiday.
“We’re stealing it back,” Kenneth Tanner, a 52-year-old Anglican priest from Michigan, exclaimed to a friend on Facebook who said she was worried someone will “mistake me for a Trumpette” if she says “Merry Christmas.”
“Say what’s on your heart! We’ll take it back for whatever agenda people have for it. And people have all kinds of agendas for Christmas. Christmas is about God becoming human,” Tanner told The Washington Post in an interview. He always says “Merry Christmas.” If someone says “Happy Holidays” to him, what does he say? “Thank you.”
Matt Lewis, a conservative pundit and writer, said intellectually he thinks Trump’s alleged liberation of the holiday is a joke. He makes a point to say: “Isn’t it so good that we can now say ‘Merry Christmas!’ ” — in the same way he says “so much winning!” when something involving the government seems messed up — to mock Trump’s slogans. Yet Lewis can’t help noticing that this year he feels a subtle lifting of whatever anxiety he may have had — but didn’t realize — about saying “Merry Christmas.”
“I’m not a fan of the way Trump has weaponized this issue and the culture war. But by bringing it up and making an issue and in a way making it laughable, I do think it loosened things up a bit,” he said. “It may be [Trump] hits people differently. Someone in another part of the country might see it earnestly. For me it’s an ironic thing. We sort of laugh at that because it’s absurd that people couldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas,’ but in a way that creates a permission structure to say it!”
Lewis notices himself tacking on a “Isn’t it great that we can say ‘Merry Christmas?’ ” after saying it — but he still is saying it more, he says. Trump seems to have made things a little better, Lewis says, “though intellectually I can’t tell you why.”
The Trump Christmas Effect seems to be, for some, largely subconscious.
In an episode of Comedy Central’s “The Opposition With Jordan Klepper” — a satire of a conservative talk show host — Klepper this month interviewed a woman at a Trump rally in Florida about how the president has improved American life.
“Something that’s good for me is we get to actually celebrate Christmas and stuff,” she tells him.
“You weren’t celebrating Christmas before?” Klepper asks.
“No we do …”
“But you wouldn’t get each other gifts,” he says.
“Oh, we do that too.”
“So what weren’t you doing before?” he asks.
“People saying ‘Happy Holidays’ and stuff …”
“And that was offensive to you,” he says.
“No, it wasn’t offensive.”
“So there wasn’t really an issue before …?” he asks.
“But you feel good now that you can do it?” he says.
“And now [Trump is] just like: ‘It’s Christmas’ and everyone’s like: ‘okay!’ ”
“So we can feel good that it’s Christmas again?” he asks.
“Even if we never felt any different before?” he asks.
“It’s still an issue we can claim victory with,” he affirms.
“Right, exactly,” she says.
(Watch minute 2:07-2:55 below)
For at least the past decade, the percentage of Americans who say they don’t care what holiday greeting they get in stores has been rising. In 2005, “Merry Christmas” and “doesn’t matter” were tied at around 44 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. A few weeks ago 52 percent said “doesn’t matter,” compared with 32 percent who want the explicit Christmas greeting.
A Quinnipiac University poll out this week found 19 percent of Americans believe the “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” question is a “real issue,” compared with 76 percent who believe it was “made up for political purposes.” There’s a huge age gap in that poll. Of people under 34, 8 percent think it’s a “real issue,” compared with nearly a quarter of people over 50.
If it feels like the issue is getting politicized, Twitter data analysis seems to bear that out.
According to Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University who analyzes tweets to uncover trends, tweets with the phrase “Merry Christmas” are much more political than “Happy Holidays” tweets. For instance, tweets with “Merry Christmas” are nine times more likely to mention Trump, Burge said. And the phrase “Merry Christmas” is also much more likely to be connected with the words “America,” “tax” and “GOP.”
Using sentiment scoring in a tool called Natural Language Processing, there were about 3,000 tweets he analyzed with “Happy Holidays” that were considered negative, while closer to 30,000 with the same phrase were considered positive. “Merry Christmas” had about 4,000 negative tweets, compared with 30,000 that were positive. That means both terms are considered very positive, Burge said. “Merry Christmas” appears far more often than “Happy Holidays.”
“Natural Language Processing can’t pick up on irony or sarcasm — yet, at least,” Burge said. “So, some of the ‘Merry Christmas’ tweets are certainly written in jest.”
It can be hard at times to tell what’s being jabbed at: Trump or the opposite?
A Boston-area liquor store’s video spoof-ad about the issue has been watched more than 55,000 times. It features the owner, increasingly frustrated, as one customer after another responds to his hearty “Merry Christmas!” with a “Happy Holidays!” Finally Christ himself comes to the counter and rebuffs the owner, who says “Jesus, you too?” in an ending that seems to be mocking the owner. Then the kicker: The entire staff offering a rousing “Merry Christmas!”
Michael Warren, a writer at the conservative Weekly Standard, employed the same approach that slyly makes mocking and embracing Trump indistinguishable.
Another version is people who say “Merry Christmas” and add “Just making America great again!” Is Trump the permission-giver or the butt of the joke or both?
Trump critics and supporters of former president Barack Obama have fought back with a similarly ironic effort: questioning the importance and fairness of a president who says “Merry Christmas” while simultaneously noting that the Obamas frequently said “Merry Christmas” as well.
Kerri Toloczko, 60, a public policy analyst from Sterling, Va., said Trump has definitely liberated people in a positive way. “It’s like they’ve been let out of PC jail,” she wrote on Facebook in response to a Post question about whether things feel different this year.
Toloczko said people in recent years “have been very fearful” of saying it. She noticed in recent years if someone said “Happy Holidays” to her, she’d feel cautious and say something like “same to you,” but wasn’t happy about it. It’s Christmastime, and to pretend otherwise is “kind of silly,” she said.
This year “I feel a little more emboldened.” And she senses people appreciate it when they offer a “Happy Holidays” and now she says “Merry Christmas!”
“People’s faces light up, they really like to hear it. You can almost see the person’s countenance change,” she said.
While Toloczko credits Trump, she doesn’t see anything political in her shift — she doesn’t see it as a sign of support for him and doesn’t take it as such when it comes from someone else. It’s more of a little victory in the culture war.
“Obviously the president of the United States is a political person, but I don’t think most people equate politics with the ‘Merry Christmas’ thing,” she said. “Perhaps it’s the result of a political movement, but it’s not the first thing that pops in your head. Now people are just saying: ‘It’s okay to say it!’ If I say it and someone doesn’t like it, they won’t get upset, because it’s a well wish, it’s a good wish. There’s nothing negative associated with saying it.”
She did notice that coinciding with President Trump’s first Christmas, Starbucks has shifted from a plain red cup, which candidate Trump had trashed as not Christmas-y enough and proposed boycotting the company. “This year they have a tree on the cup,” she said.
The president is milking the connection big-time. A pro-Trump nonprofit is releasing a fundraising video called “Thank you President Trump” on Christmas Day, featuring a kicker with a little girl with a red bow in front of a tree expressing gratitude for “letting us say ‘Merry Christmas’ again!”
Another fundraising PAC actually replaces Jesus’s name with the president’s in a campaign called “Help us reach our Twelve Days of Trumpmas goal! Wish President Trump a Merry Christmas. Help him Make America Great Again!”