Skip to main content

What's really behind 'war on Christmas'

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
December 7, 2012 -- Updated 1230 GMT (2030 HKT)
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York is lit despite what some say is a war on Christmas.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York is lit despite what some say is a war on Christmas.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tim Stanley: It's not Christmas without "War on Christmas," a cooked up culture crisis
  • This time, politics in mix, with White House, others using holidays to score points, he says
  • He says "war" really reflects failure to reconcile different interests in democratic society
  • Stanley: Battle is over what goes on in public sphere. One solution? Have sense of humor

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- No Christmas is complete without a war on Christmas, and this year it's being fought on several fronts. NPR reported the White House attacking Republican intransigence over the debt talks in a report with a section titled "The Holiday Season is No Time to Threaten Middle-Class Pocketbooks." That prompted the Daily Caller to respond with the headline, "Disagreeing with Obama can ruin Christmas, says White House report." In the eyes of some liberals, the Republicans have become the party of the Grinch.

This must be news to conservatives who have always insisted that it's the Democrats who want to steal Christmas. To them, the war is being waged by liberal secularists against patriotic American Christians who want to celebrate the holiday loudly and publicly in the way Baby Jesus intended. Pat Robertson has hit out at those "miserable" atheists and Fox News has gone after Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee for deciding not to host a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

In other words, although the war on Christmas phenomenon might have something to do with rising unbelief among Americans, more likely it reflects growing partisanship among politicians. In an age when nothing is so sacred it can't be used to hurt a political opponent, Christmas is one more weapon that statesmen and stateswomen can use against each other.

But the meaning of the war on Christmas is actually bigger than partisan tomfoolery and isn't limited to right-wing fantasy, either. Some of it exposes genuine tensions within American politics and society.

Take the decision of the Santa Monica City Council to end the tradition of erecting nativity scenes or other displays in Palisades Park. The right to display a scene was hitherto decided by lottery, and the previous winter season atheists won 11 out of 14 spaces, which they used to erect enormous critiques of Christianity.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In response, locals lobbied the council to establish stricter guidelines about who could take part. The council decided that would be discriminatory, but it also didn't want to leave the system open to abuse by more offensive groups like neo-Nazis. So it decided the displays would have to stop altogether. That decision was upheld in November by a federal judge.

The local secularists were thrilled. "The free thinkers ... played the game of the religionists and they outsmarted them," Annie Laurie Gaylor told the Huffington Post. "They showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone."

This story is a classic example of the failure to reconcile different interests within a democratic society. Nobody involved was technically wrong. The secularist campaigners were right to say that the nativity displays should be open to everyone because they were on public land. Their Christian opponents were right to insist that anything erected to celebrate Christmas ought to give some priority to celebrating Christmas. And the council was right that, in the absence of consensus, it was better to allow no displays at all. The tragedy being that Gaylor's campaign ended up destroying a perfectly wonderful tradition in the name of fairness. And that hardly seems fair.

Lighting the Capitol Christmas tree
Veteran opens Santa's workshop
First lady unveils Christmas decorations
Watch thief steal Christmas decorations

Unfortunately, Gaylor gets around almost as much as Santa Claus; now she's involved in an effort to take down a Jesus-shaped war memorial near a popular ski resort in Montana. There's a thin line between this sort of secularist activism and the politics of personal taste. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a jewelry shop manager called the cops on Salvation Army bell ringers because the noise was "raising her blood pressure and making her hate Christmas." In Colorado Springs, the Salvation Army was stopped from bell ringing because of a new ban on panhandling.

What's really happening isn't just a targeted, political war on Christmas but a more general battle for control of what goes on in the public sphere, especially around the holidays. Undoubtedly, some of this is motivated by anti-religious secularism. But it's also the product of living in a crowded multicultural environment where everyone risks getting on each other's nerves -- and we have to find better ways of getting along.

One of the reasons why "Happy Holidays" has risen in use as an alternative seasonal greeting to "Merry Christmas" is simply that it helps avoid occasions of offense and confrontation. Religious conservatives complain that it's a surrender to militant atheism. But if that's the case then the surrender is widespread. George W. Bush's White House cards wished everyone a happy "holiday season" and even Fox News has its own Holiday Wish List.

If there is a solution to this controversy then perhaps it's to try to treat it with a dash of humor and disdain. The Rev. Jonathan Morris was recently invited on "Fox and Friends" to unleash hell on the war on Christmas. Instead, he did the opposite. After pointing out that Christians have throughout the centuries taken much worse persecution (and, I might add, dished out a bit, too) he concluded, "If our Christmas is going to be all about getting upset at people trying to take away Christmas, isn't that silly, too?" Amen, Father.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT