If not, you haven’t heard about the war on Christmas — or the new war on Thanksgiving that President Trump announced Tuesday. For years, Trump has been claiming that he is saving Christmas from the secular grinches, making it safe to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” again. Now, he claims that the liberal spoilsports are trying to eliminate Thanksgiving, too.
“You know, some people want to change the name ‘Thanksgiving.’ They don’t want to use the term ‘Thanksgiving.’ And that was true also with Christmas, but now everybody’s using Christmas again,” Trump said at a rally in Florida. “But now we’re going to have to do a little work on Thanksgiving. People have different ideas why it shouldn’t be called Thanksgiving, but everybody in this room I know loves the name Thanksgiving, and we’re not changing it.”
On one level, this is simply absurd: This is like a politician defending “motherhood and apple pie” while congratulating himself on his political courage. No one is trying to prohibit anyone from saying “Merry Christmas”; the more inclusive “Happy Holidays” has simply gained more social favor in recent years because of the awareness that lots of Americans might be celebrating not Christmas but Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, or even Festivus. Late-night comedians have had a ball with Trump’s phony war on Christmas — and for good cause. But beneath the silliness, there is a more serious and sinister aspect to this whole concocted controversy.
Snopes.com notes that one of the first to claim that Christmas was under siege was the notorious racist and anti-Semite Henry Ford. “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth,” the automaker complained in 1921, going on to blame “Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and certain patriotic songs.”
During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, the far-right John Birch Society picked up the theme with a pamphlet called “There Goes Christmas?!” It warned that “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 — to denude the event of its religious meaning. … What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.”
I’m not aware of any department stores displaying United Nations rather than Christmas symbols, but that hasn’t stopped this enduring trope on the right. Snopes attributes the modern war on Christmas coinage to Peter Brimelow, the founder of Vdare, a noxious website described as “racist, anti-immigrant” by the Anti-Defamation League. In a 2000 post, Brimelow called “the War Against Christmas … part of the struggle to abolish America.”
Bill O’Reilly, the now-disgraced Fox News anchor, took up the cry in 2004, claiming that Christmas was “under siege.” He attributed this to an “anti-Christian” blitz by “secular progressives” intent on foisting “gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation, and many other progressive visions” on innocent, God-fearing Americans. The following year, O’Reilly’s colleague John Gibson published a book called “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought.”
It did not take long for Trump — Fox News’s most faithful and credulous viewer — to join the “War on Christmas” as a full-throated combatant. By doing so, he gets to portray himself as a champion of white Christian America against insidious “Others” who, his followers fear, will destroy the country they know and love.
Fueling these concerns are America’s changing demographics. Writing at Vox, Ezra Klein cites estimates that “when Barack Obama took office, 54 percent of the country was white and Christian; by the time he left office, that had fallen to 43 percent. This is largely because young Americans are less white, and less Christian, than older Americans. Almost 70 percent of American seniors are white Christians, compared to only 29 percent of young adults.”
Trump’s white evangelical followers — the core of his base — are terrified that they are fast losing power in a country they once dominated. Hence their fanatical support for Trump as “the chosen one” and their disparagement of his critics as “demonic.” A skilled demagogue, Trump unerringly taps into their anxiety with his risible claims about a war on Christmas and now a war on Thanksgiving.
For my part, I would be thankful this holiday season to be free of these cynical attempts to politicize celebrations that should unite, rather than divide, Americans. Let me enjoy my turkey in peace. Happy holidays!