The idea of a nationwide “war on Christmas” — a campaign to un-sanctify the second-most important holiday in the Christian religion, as discussed each year by Bill O’Reilly — has been taken up by a new culture warrior. Sarah Palin is about to release “Good Tidings and Great Joy,” a 256-page treatise whose Amazon page’s copy has that trademark aggrieved Palin tone. In 2013, we’re told, “the greeting ‘Merry Christmas’ has been replaced by the supposedly less offensive ‘Happy Holidays.’”
This is a nifty rhetorical trick — to not say “Merry Christmas” to Sarah Palin, then, is not merely gauche (if it indeed is) but actually offensive! As to who “supposes” the saying “Happy Holidays” is less “offensive,” that is, at least in Palin’s selling of the book, is left purposefully vague. She also ignores the possibility that the people telling her “Happy Holidays” have no idea whether Palin celebrates Christmas (unlike, say, Thanksgiving or Independence Day, an explicitly religious celebration) and are less worried about offending or not than just getting through their day working at the Hallmark Gold Crown store without a lecture about American’s Christian heritage. There is no coordinated campaign against uttering Christ’s name but rather, a seeming gradual shift over decades to awareness that not everyone celebrates Christmas. “Happy holidays,” for those who say it, is not disrespectful but a catch-all phrase to which the hearer can impute anything she wants; presumably Palin’s faith in the Nativity is not so weak that a person failing to mention Christ in alluding to the celebration could shake it.
All this — the debate litigated each year by those who believe everyone must acknowledge their special faith, and those who just want to get through December calmly — leaves entirely aside the fact that the liberalizing force of pop culture nearly universally singles out Christmas as the holiday. It’s fairly uncommon for a television series to broadcast a Chanukah special, but Christmas specials rule the tube, from reruns of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to the “Modern Family” family and the “New Girl” gang celebrating the Yuletide.
Palin’s claim that “the homogenization of the holiday season” is underway is hard to square with the reality that last year, shows including “The Big Bang Theory,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office” and “Grey’s Anatomy” broadcast Christmas specials. Christmas is inescapable in pop culture from more than a month out — after all, Palin’s Christmas book is coming out in November, more than a month before the holiday.
If the holiday season were one big blur, Santa Claus and menorahs would mix together on the tube in one big December extravaganza. But the Christmas season is all about Christmas in our culture — the Hallmark Channel, associated with a brand that makes cards for every holiday, devotes itself to Christmas movies in December. There’s no countdown to Kwanzaa on the air. There aren’t pagan solstice anthems on Top 40 radio this time of year.
This critique of “the war on Christmas” leaves aside a tenet Palin and her fellow warriors hold dear: that Christmas has become more about Santa and “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and gifts under the tree than about the glorious birth of Jesus Christ. Per the display copy connected to Palin’s book, “Palin defends the importance of preserving Jesus Christ in Christmas—whether in public displays, school concerts, and pageants, or in our hearts.” It’s hard to come up with a counterargument to this because, aside from the long-standing separation of church and state (not a new practice), no one is preventing those who celebrate Christmas from hosting pageants or keeping Jesus in their hearts.
Popular culture is by its very nature popular and so is designed to appeal to a broad coalition of potential viewers or shoppers. A television special nodding at Christmas or a mall display featuring Santa instead of the Blessed Virgin Mary are acknowledgments that Christmas is tremendously special to many people for many reasons; those people, if their love for Christmas is entirely based in religious faith, can reflect on what’s meaningful to them. But Christmas is tied up in so many other elements of culture — and this, too, is not a new phenomenon — that it’s not so much that Christ is being excluded from Christmas as that those who celebrate are able to freely choose what they watch or say. Those who don’t celebrate Christmas say “Happy holidays” as a way of communicating their awareness that this time is important to many people from many traditions; those who broadcast Christmas specials not depicting the birth of Christ are communicating, still, a general air of good cheer and charity. Palin’s promise that her book will provide details of her own family’s religious celebrations are anecdotal evidence proving only that Palin should continue doing exactly what she wants.
“Wish me a Merry Christmas,” she dictates, but such proscription, rather than other folks’ well-meaning attempts to include everyone in a happy, celebratory time of year, seems deeply antithetical to what we’re constantly reminded is the Christmas spirit.