The Fight Before Christmas

The War on Christmas is even less winnable than the War on Drugs


A while back, prominent members of New York's Jewish community organized a strike against Christmas exercises in the city's public schools. In light of state laws prohibiting the teaching of "religious doctrines or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect," they asked the Board of Education to bar school-based festivities that had in the past included such elements as religious hymns, pictures of the Madonna, holly, mistletoe, and Christmas trees. (They also maintained that any "symbols of Judaism, Mohammedanism, or infidelism" should be banned as well.) When the Board of Education failed to respond to their request, several rabbis and Jewish newspapers encouraged parents to keep their children at home on December 24th. Mother Nature lent a hand too, as it was especially cold that day. All told, approximately 20,000 to 25,000 students ended up skipping class.

The year this happened? 1906. In 1947, an assistant superintendent banned "religious Christmas carols" in 23 Brooklyn schools. In 1957, ten residents of Ossining, New York sued the Board of Education for allowing a crèche to display on the lawn of the local high school. In 1962, The New York Times reported that, "with growing frequency entire communities are split in bitter battles over holiday observances in the public schools." So if you're worried that there's only two days left until Christmas and you haven't found time yet to file a lawsuit against that homeless Baby Jesus camping out on your City Hall's lawn, relax! Likewise, don't worry if you haven't managed to upbraid a sales clerk or two for not sufficiently acknowledging why boot-cut jeans are 40 percent off right now. You'll have more opportunities next year—or a century or two from now. The War on Christmas is less perishable than even the hardiest fruitcake.

For zero-tolerance Santaphobes and enemies of the Christ Child, there hasn't been much to celebrate this holiday season. At Florida Gulf Coast University, Old St. Nick managed to withstand an "ugly sweater" coup. On Capitol Hill, at the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, secular-progressive High Priestess Nancy Pelosi acknowledged "all the gifts God has given us and how blessed we are" as the U.S. Air Force band played traditional Christmas carols in the background. In the Legislative Building of Washington state, where the biggest War on Christmas controversy of this season erupted, the Christ Child's presence on government property was never in jeopardy—it was the atheist sign that was in danger of being excluded.

Even so, the defenders of Christmas continue to imagine that defeat may be just around the corner. But whenever they warn about the "concerted drive to remove all vestiges of Christianity from the celebration of Christ's birthday" or encourage our car bumpers to rail against the separation of church and superstore, an 800 lb. gorilla looms over the proceedings. Or, less metaphorically but far more spectacularly, a "giant commercial nativity display with commercial grade C7 LED lights and fine-cut garland."

Indeed, at no time in the history of the world has Christmas—or, if you prefer, CHRISTmas—been a more visible and comprehensively provisioned spectacle than it is in America today. If you want to make sure your community boasts at least one theologically explicit snowman to remind people why egg nog mysteriously starts appearing in grocery stores in December, you don't have to waste time tangling with the ACLU or the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or even the other members of your local crèche committee. You can simply order one from and install it in your front yard. You don't have to fret about whether or not your local radio station is going to interrupt its week-long "Jingle Bells" marathon with more Godly fare— offers more than 3000 versions of "Silent Night" alone. You don't have to satiate your child's sweet tooth with heathen candy canes—you can buy peppermint manifestations of Jesus, complete with historically questionable pedigree.

One hundred years ago, or five hundred years ago, or whenever it was that Christ was still thought to be sufficiently embodied in Christmas, nothing like Christmas Night Inc. existed. An online retailer, it specializes in high-end outdoor nativity sets, offering more than a dozen varieties to choose from. These colorful, larger-than-life tableaus can cost as much as $14,999 and include more than a dozen pieces, including 85″ camels, shooting stars, and giant angels. In short, they are hard to miss—and according to Christmas Night Inc. owner Donald Henderson, demand for nativity sets has been growing steadily over the last several years. Around half of his customers are churches. The other half are individual or other institutions, including local government organizations, banks, car dealers, and the Department of Defense, which has purchased items for Army and Navy base chapels in Germany, Japan, and here in the U.S.

Countless online retailers offer similar products. You can remind your neighbors of the nation's Judeo-Christian roots with nativity sets that glow from within like giant night-lights. You can spread Christmas cheer with 525-watt wise men, holographic mangers, and 9 ft. tall inflatable crosses with multiple colored sashes. ("Celebrate the Birth, His Death for our Sins, and Rise from the Grave! All with 1 inflatable.")

The phenomenon carries over to the real world. Indeed, the next time Bill O'Reilly is feeling snubbed by a pagan Bloomingdale's clerk, perhaps he can find solace in the fact that while Ye Olde Winter Solstice Shoppe remains as mythical as Rudolph, year-round Christmas shops, offering an overwhelming array of lights, ornaments, crèches, reverent Santas, and other assorted Christmas décor, are becoming more and more commonplace. And they're hardly discrete about their allegiance to the holiday, going by names like Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland, Noel, Christmas Past and Present, Once Upon a Christmas, etc.

As the Allied Defense Fund points out, it's perfectly legal for public schools and government institutions to display Nativity scenes and other religious symbols. Students can sing Christmas hymns and their teachers can say "Merry Christmas." But say the government suddenly reversed its position on such things. Say the U.S. Post Office stopped issuing "Virgin and Child" Christmas stamps and Nancy Pelosi stopped giving shout-outs to God during U.S. Capitol tree lighting ceremonies. Could every trace of Christmas actually disappear the way its strongest adherents imagine it might, when all across America millions of believers are furnished with an unfathomable array of keepsakes, decorations, and 810 lb. Nativity scenes? Because Christmas is our most commercialized tradition, it's also our most intractable tradition. At this point, it would be easier to rid America of guns than it would be to pry every last "Oh Holy Night" glass ornament from the cold dead fingers of the nation's Radko collectors. The War on Christmas is even less winnable than the War on Drugs. This Christmas night, as thousands of LED Christ Childs illuminate the heavens above America, even near-sighted Martians will have no trouble discerning the reason for the season.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his reason archive here.

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Watch related videos:

Click to watch Christopher Hitchens give a dramatic reading of Tom Lehrer's "Christmas Carol" at Reason's 2007 Very Special, Very Secular Christmas Party.

Click to watch Rapture Ready author Daniel Radosh discuss Christian-themed products.