The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christmas is in no danger of going away, but it’s still politically useful to pretend it is

The National Christmas Tree is seen illuminated on Dec. 3, 2020. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Stories like this one should begin with an anecdote, so here’s one: Over the weekend, I went to Lowe’s to see if there were some Halloween decorations I could buy. Seemed like I was still getting a jump on things, since Halloween is still four weeks away. But Lowe’s didn’t have much Halloween stuff. Instead, that front area with the seasonal merchandise was mostly geared for Christmas. Lots of trees, lots of Santa.

It was odd, then, to come across this tweet the next day.

Should President Biden or Anthony S. Fauci have been under the misconception that Christmas was not being celebrated — perhaps because it is October — Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) and Lowe’s Home Improvement could have disabused them.

Tenney’s argument is a familiar one by now. This idea that there is a “War on Christmas,” one stoked and abetted by Democrats, has been a standard part of the Republican culture fight for years. As with so many other culture fights, former president Donald Trump elevated it, insisting that he’d somehow rescued the holiday. Over and over, Trump took credit for the existence of a thing that never left, like running on a platform of “there should be a sky.”

Also, as with many culture-war fights, there’s a political reason that this is useful — particularly now. But before we get to that, let’s make very obvious that Christmas is under no threat.

Take Google searches. There’s been no erosion in the search interest for the holiday over the past 17 years. In fact, interest has grown. Search interest this month trails other recent Octobers but, of course, we’re only four days into the month. Presumably, interest increases as the month unfolds. Also of note: There are consistently more searches for “Christmas” than “holiday.”

It is also the case that search interest in Jesus has been fairly steady, undercutting any idea that the holiday season has been uncoupled from the religious significance. There are two interesting things about this search. First, that searches peak twice each year, with Easter yielding more interest than Christmas (no doubt pleasing many religion teachers). Second, that Google identifies search terms with descriptors to avoid confusion, and the descriptor for Jesus (at least on Monday) was a simple “preacher.”

Nor is it the case that Americans are less invested in Christmas as a celebration. Gallup tracks spending each year and has measured a relatively consistent upward trend in spending since the recession a decade ago. Even given last year’s economic disruptions, nearly three-quarters of Americans said they planned to spend as much on Christmas gifts as they usually do — or more.

The question, then, is what Tenney means when she suggests that someone might think there wasn’t going to be a Christmas? The answer is partly politics and partly demography.

The politics part is straightforward. The reason that the right (mostly Fox News) ginned up the idea that there was a “War on Christmas” in the first place was to accuse the left of trying to undercut American traditions. That gained new salience with the coronavirus pandemic, during which restrictions on in-person gatherings often meant limits on religious services — providing an enormous amount of fuel for the “Democratic politicians hate Christianity” narrative.

Tenney was responding to Fauci’s appearance on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, during which the country’s top infectious-disease expert responded to a question about the feasibility of large, in-person gatherings for the holidays with a “it’s just too soon to tell.” That, of course, is a perfectly fair assessment. If you ask the guy who recommends against group gatherings during times of surging case totals whether people should have group gatherings at a time in which case totals are unknown, he’s going to say, “I don’t know.” But for those frustrated (sincerely or otherwise) by the duration of the pandemic and recommendations in support of treating it seriously, Fauci’s comments are a chance to make a point.

If you think that a recommendation from Fauci not to hold in-person Christmas gatherings posed any significant threat to Christmas, then you probably also think that his recommendations about wearing masks and getting vaccinated quickly stamped out the pandemic earlier this year.

The reason that all of this resonates, though, is because Republicans often view the increased multiculturalism of the United States with skepticism — at best. As we reported last week, it is the case that the density of Christians in the country has decreased over time. The use of “happy holidays” as a compliment or replacement for “merry Christmas” during December is to some extent a reflection of that shift. (It is also, obviously, a reflection of corporate America’s interest in being as broadly appealing as possible, which is why such left-wing entities as the Trump Organization deploy a “happy holidays” message.)

That decrease in the density of Christians overlaps with concerns among Republicans about the status of Christians and Christianity in the country. Polling from Pew Research Center released earlier this year shows that the political right in America is much more likely than those in other Western countries to see Christianity as central to national identity and to believe that Christians face a lot of discrimination.

Pew polling released in 2019 found that Republicans believed that evangelical Protestants faced about as much discrimination as Muslim and Black Americans and far more than Jewish people.

All of this folds onto itself. The right sees a decline in Christianity as a threat to the country and as operating in tandem with discrimination against members of that faith. As environmental writer David Roberts points out, this isn’t entirely surprising; an erosion of cultural dominance can be perceived as repression. The advent (sorry) of coronavirus recommendations presented a tangible way in which Christians were prevented from participating in their faith as they were accustomed to doing.

What America really needs to worry about is the War on Halloween, an insidious plot to prevent a father from getting big, dumb inflatable decorations for his kids from Lowe’s. Of course, I blame Fauci.