In this rural Trump-supporting town, home to barely 1,000 people and at least 10 Christian churches, the word "holiday" doesn't seem to exist. LINDEN, Tenn. —
Outside the county courthouse there's an evergreen tree covered with colored lights and ornaments made by local students, along with a sign that reads: "Welcome to our Christmas tree." Light poles along Main Street are decorated with banners featuring Santa Claus and a greeting of "MERRY CHRISTMAS." The beauty shop window has a sign reading, "Jesus is the reason for the season."
At the town's Christmas parade earlier this month, children scurried to scoop up candy, and adults shouted to one another, "Merry Christmas!"
"We've always said 'Merry Christmas,' " said Melissa Cobb, 48, a local hairstylist wearing dangling cross earrings, who voted for President Trump and gathered before the parade with fellow church members and clients in the beauty salon where she works. She added that no one in the town has ever been offended by her saying the phrase.
"It offends me," she continued, "to see at the stores, where they just do 'Happy Holidays' or 'Seasons Greetings.' It should be 'Merry Christmas.' Put Christ back into Christmas. That's what it's supposed to be. . . . I just wish we would all get on the same page."
Trump tapped into this sentiment on the campaign trail when he promised that if he was elected president, everyone would say "Merry Christmas" again — never mind that most Americans never stopped.
Trump's "Merry Christmas" promise was about much more than the utterance of those two words in December — and he didn't limit this discussion to the Christmas season. Just like his pledge to "make America great again," Trump's Christmas promise meant different things to different voters.
Trump usually brings up Christmas whenever addressing large groups of evangelical voters or during rallies in deeply religious rural areas. On the night that he won the Indiana primary in May 2016, Trump said, "The evangelical vote was for Trump. . . . And we're going to work together for many, many years. We're going to make it so good. We're going to be saying 'Merry Christmas' again."
During the general election, about 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, even though he rarely attends church and is a cursing, thrice-married former reality television star from Manhattan who has been publicly accused by 13 women of kissing or groping them without their consent. Here in Tennessee's Perry County, where Trump won 76 percent of the vote, many locals said they don't consider the president one of them but they are glad he's speaking up for them.
Roger Barber, a 60-year-old salesman who lives in the next town over and voted for Trump, said he doesn't think the president can fully stop the erosion of the rights of Christians in the country, but he hopes the president tries "to put the brakes on it."
"The government, I think, is trying to oppress Christianity with some of the policies that they come up with. They're trying to oppress it, force people out of what they believe in," Barber said as he finished up lunch at Hens and Hogs BBQ on Squirrel Hollow Drive. "Like, the cake issue that's before the Supreme Court right now. The Supreme Court having to decide whether a Christian can bake a cake or not, or has the right to refuse to bake the cake."
During the presidential campaign, the promise of "Merry Christmas" reminded some voters across the country of the false conspiracy theories that then-President Barack Obama was born in another country or that he was secretly Muslim. Obama, who is Christian, repeatedly said "Merry Christmas" in tweets, video addresses and public speeches throughout his presidency.
It also resonated with those who believe the country has become too "politically correct" and who are tired of corporations trying to be inclusive of all religions, including Judaism and Islam. (Trump's own hotels typically greet customers with "Happy Holidays," and last week one of the president's sons tweeted: "Happy Holidays from TrumpWinery.com!")
"We can't say 'Christmas,' because there's too many Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, and it offends them," said Naomi DePriest, a property manager in her mid-50s whose husband farms, over a lunch of fried catfish and ribs at Hens and Hogs. "I think they should keep Christ in Christmas, which is what they said originally, and to heck with anybody that don't like it. Anybody that's Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, let them do what they want to do, but don't criticize those that want to keep Christ in Christmas."
Such perceived political correctness exists even here in Linden, where the glass front door of City Hall features a painted wreath and the greeting, "Happy Holidays!" The same greeting is written on a chalkboard in the window of a photography studio and at Perry County High School.
Dawn Taylor, the school's carpentry teacher, said she recently took some of her students on a field trip and they stopped for a meal together. At home, many students pray before they eat, but she couldn't ask them to do the same on a public school trip.
"I say to them: 'I'm thankful for all of you, and I want to take a moment and thank whoever you thank, whether it's the tree over there, the universe, the good Lord or what,' " said Taylor, 54. "And we take a moment and do that, but we're not allowed to pray. I'm very grateful — and from my point of view, our school has not backed down from being grateful."
Taylor said she has always said "Merry Christmas" — and added that here in the South, the shorthand of "Xmas" is strictly frowned upon as it replaces "Christ" with a negative symbol. She remembers Trump talking about Christmas on the campaign trail and was thrilled.
"I personally like that he's a no-nonsense sort of person. Do I wish he would use his words in a better way sometimes? Absolutely. But it takes a person with strength and gumption to not care sometimes about what they say or how they say it," Taylor said. "But the 'Merry Christmas' part, I think, is amazing and should have been done a long time ago."
It's difficult to tell if the president's campaign for Christmas has changed the national culture; here in Linden, everyone has always said "Merry Christmas." But Taylor said she has seen a subtle change in the elaborate holiday card that she and her husband receive each year from a law firm in Jackson, Tenn.
"It's always the most beautiful card, with gold in the envelope," she said. "So I get it out, and I'm thinking, 'This is going to be a 'Happy Holidays' card. Right on the front, it said: 'Merry Christmas.' "
Taylor led her shop students this year in an ambitious Christmas project: They cut more than 400 ornaments out of wood — teddy bears, bells, stockings, snowmen, evergreen trees and doves — and then took them to county elementary schools so local students could decorate them for the town's Christmas tree in front of the county courthouse.
Earlier this month, the town held its formal Christmas tree lighting ceremony on a bitterly cold Thursday evening. The local Chamber of Commerce served free hot chocolate, and volunteers passed out free books to children.
"Go ahead and light her up," Linden Mayor Wess Ward said, as local radio personalities then led a countdown: "5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1!"
Suddenly, the tree lit up with multicolored lights, illuminating the ornaments that Taylor's students had created.
Then came the town Christmas parade: A firetruck decorated in white lights and topped with an inflated cartoon character; local county government and law enforcement vehicles. A World War II vehicle, part of the city's annual reenactment, filled with locals in period garb. A marching band wearing Santa hats and another with lights on their instruments. A multicolored school bus filled with Shriner clowns. Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts. A bail bonding company with a small float featuring Santa and his elves in the county jail. The local girl's basketball team in a bus decorated with homemade signs reading: "Merry Christmas!" Santa in a sled pulled by a pickup truck.
As each float passed, Jennifer Yarbrough waved to people she knew and yelled out: "Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!"
Yarbrough said she is overwhelmed by all of the sin in the world these days. Yarbrough said that many people aren't being paid as much as they need to be. Depression and drugs have long been a problem in the area.
She has three children — ages 9, 15 and 18, with a grandchild on the way — and works two jobs, at a local factory during the week and then cleaning a business on Sundays, making it difficult for her to get to church.
"Everybody's struggling," she said. "This town does need money, but we're okay. We have a lot of faith in this town. Christmas here is what makes it fun here. Look at the streets. Look at the lights. We just love Christmas here."
Yarbrough is a Democrat and voted for Hillary Clinton. She considers Trump an "evil" man and said he used religion to win votes, saying things that she doesn't think he genuinely means.
Then she stopped herself: "I try not to get into the politics, because that's the wrong thing to do in a small town. So I just don't get into it."
The parade ended with a procession of horses, including one pulling a cart with a dog sitting in the back. The crowd — clad in hunting camouflage, Carhartt jackets, snowsuits and fleece blankets — fled to their warm cars.
"I hope you didn't get too cold," the parade announcer said, "but it is Christmastime."