The Surprising Catholic Roots of the War on Xmas

2012 Screenshot of Fox News' "Happy Holidays" banner from Media Matters.

The love between Donald Trump and white evangelical Protestants remains strong according to a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. Nearly three-quarters of all white evangelical Protestants—72%—approve of Trump’s job performance.

This isn’t surprising, as Trump has taken pains to bolster the America-first white nationalism that has supplanted any meaningful religious principles for the vast majority of white evangelicals, from race-baiting to Muslim-baiting, from resurrected controversies over Confederate monuments to faux controversies over kneeling football players.

Just last week his talent for stirring the culture-war pot was on display outside of St. Louis, where he went to ostensibly promote tax cuts. “Trump appeared on stage with twin symbols of his vision of the country’s heritage—a pair of American flags and a row of Christmas trees,” reported the Washington Post. “I told you that we would be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” Trump said as the crowd roared. “Remember, I was the one when I was here the last time, I said, ‘We’re going to have Christmas again’.”

But while the “War on Christmas” has become a reliable mainstream evangelical culture-war issue, its originators, at least in it’s modern incarnation, were two conservative Catholics: Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and culture-war crank Bill Donohue of the Catholic League.

Donohue came to the Catholic League from the Heritage Foundation in 1993 and immediately seized on the idea of manufactured culture war battles to portray Catholics as under assault by mainstream society. His first faux controversy was a protest over a VHI ad on New York City buses that showed the performer Madonna next to the Madonna, which he called “a form of blasphemy.”

The “controversy” earned Donohue widespread media attention—the ads were removed—and more ginned-up instances of “anti-Catholicism” followed, like a protest against the 1995 movie “Priest” that caused the Knights of Columbus to dump 50,000 shares of Disney stock as a protest against Disney’s subsidiary Miramax, which produced the film.

Beginning around 2000, Donohue began complaining about the secularization of Christmas and the “extent to which Christmas is being downplayed in the nation’s public schools.” By 2003, he was regularly claiming that schools were “censoring Christmas” when they erected holiday displays that acknowledged cultural traditions other than Christianity or banned crèches or sang Frosty the Snowman instead of Silent Night. In 2004, he gave examples of besieged Christians organizing to defend Christmas by singing banned Christmas carols and fighting municipalities to display crèches in public spaces.

That was the year that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly jumped on the “War on Christmas” bandwagon when he featured “Christmas Under Siege” in his “Talking Points Memo”:

All over the country, Christmas is taking flak. In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the holiday tree and no Christian Christmas symbols were allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores, [that’s] Macy’s, have done away with the Christmas greeting, “Merry Christmas.”

O’Reilly charged it was a secular plot to “destroy religion in the public arena” to promote progressive policies like “gay marriage, partial-birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, [and] income redistribution through taxation.” He told unsuspecting Christians that they “will lose their country if they don’t begin to take action.”

Then in 2005, Donohue struck gold when a Wal-Mart customer service employee emailed a woman who complained about the store changing “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” and told her: “The majority of the world still has different practices other than “Christmas” which is an ancient tradition that has its roots in Siberian shamanism. … Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses [sic], mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal.”

Donohue seized on the incident to charge that Wal-Mart had purged “Christmas” from its web site, which he called “discrimination” practiced by “cultural fascists.” He called for a boycott of Wal-Mart in mid-November of 2005, just as the holiday season was starting. Wal-Mart quickly apologized and fired the offending employee, but with charges that major corporations were plotting to eradicate the holiday the “War on Christmas” went mainstream.

That same year, Fox News anchor John Gibson published The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought, which charged that Christmas was “under attack” in a “sustained and strategized manner.” O’Reilly began publishing his “naughty or nice” list of retailers who didn’t use “Christmas.”

By 2010, the “War on Christmas” was a reliable headliner at conservative Christian events such as the Values Voter Summit, signaling that it had penetrated into the evangelical consciousness. Behind this of course were deep fears about changing values and changing culture. As PRRI’s Robert Jones noted in The End of White Christian America, “White Christian America was a place where few gave second thought to saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to strangers.”

The rise of “Happy Holidays” to many signaled a culture in which nothing seemed certain, like prohibitions against homosexuality. As the Post reported, when then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry was running for the GOP nomination in 2011, he said that “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in schools.”

The “War on Christmas” may have become a punch line for Jon Stewart, but as a rallying cry for cultural conservatives it was effective in convincing them they were under assault by mainstream culture, creating solidarity among Catholics and Protestants and helping to demonize progressives as enemies of religion. According to Dan Cassino in the Harvard Business Review:

In a December 2005 Gallup poll, 41% of respondents said they preferred to be greeted with “Happy Holidays” during the holiday season, and 56% said they’d rather hear “Merry Christmas.” Ten years later, a survey we conducted at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind research center found that only 25% wanted to hear “Happy Holidays,” while 65% of Americans said they preferred “Merry Christmas.” Despite variance between pollsters and different ways of wording the question, the trend is clear: Over the last decade, many Americans changed their minds about the greeting they want to hear, and the question of what to say to customers and neighbors became fraught with social meaning.

It’s that social meaning of Christmas as a repository of white Christian values that Donohue and O’Reilly weaponized long before Donald Trump promised to make Christmas great again.