American conservatives take aim at the 'war on Christmas'

A Fox News rant that Santa Claus is white and "so was Jesus" is rekindling America's culture wars, and doesn't reflect today's realities about either Christmas or a changing U.S., Neil Macdonald writes.

A Fox News rant that Santa Claus is white and 'so was Jesus' has soured the national eggnog

African-American Santa Claus Langston Patterson, 77, poses with four-month-old Raelyn Price and her grandmother, Gloria Boissiere, in an L.A. mall. His beard is real, too. (REUTERS)

The saleswoman at the department store counter where I occasionally buy ties is Jewish; she's a lovely, tranquil woman who, I suspect, doesn't care much about the newborn king.

Still, she endures with good grace the endless loop of treacly Christmas music her store begins playing around Halloween. I bait her about it from time to time, and all she offers is a slightly weary smile.

My guess is she looks at Christmas the same way I do: Everybody's a little more cheerful at this time of year, and it's nice, and neither of us thinks of her little ties-and-gifts counter as a battleground.

From other quarters, however, Americans are being assured a religious war is underway.

Conservative mouthpieces and news outlets warn that "the right to celebrate Christmas is under attack," and that "challenges to religious freedom are taking place."

Satanists are apparently involved. (Like the ones who, according to Glenn Beck's conservative blog The Blaze, joined with atheists in the effort to remove a nativity scene from Florida's state Capitol building.)

Abortionists may also be involved, too, at least figuratively. Earlier this month, Sarah Palin spoke out against "those who would want to try to abort Christ from Christmas."

Even homosexual activists are part of the war, it seems. Why else, ask the conservatives, would Hallmark have been forced to remove the word "gay" from one of its Christmas ornaments?

Battle map drawn

Over at the Fox News website, readers are provided with an interactive War on Christmas map, which pinpoints the attacks by haters of Christianity across America.

Some of the key battles this season:

  • The Kiwanis Club in Cheboygan, Mich., forced to move its nativity scene off municipal property.

  • Merchants in Buffalo, N.Y., told by the city to pay for the electricity required to power Christmas lights.

  • A Salvation Army volunteer at a Pittsburgh mall told her big brass Christmas bell is making too much noise.
Michelle Obama and Sesame Street's Abby Cadabby read "Twas the Night Before Christmas" during the National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington on Dec. 6. (REUTERS)

Bill O'Reilly, Fox's self-proclaimed bloviator, was so outraged at the officials of Bar Harbor, Me., that he dispatched a correspondent to confront them over their vote to remove a "coniferous war memorial … decked with coloured lights" from the village.

He and his fellow travellers have been ranting for years about the slow disappearance of the Jesus story from Christmas music, and about department stores replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays." (The first use of which, as far as I can tell, was in 1942 by the notorious Christmas-hater Bing Crosby.)

Jesus was a white man?

Now, it is tempting to grin at all this, or dismiss it as a cynical attempt to sell more advertising to the easily riled-up rubes.

It's hard to believe Fox's Gretchen Carlson, who attended Stanford and Oxford universities, would seriously be indignant about Festivus, the fictional holiday invented by the fictional George Costanza's fictional father on the TV series Seinfeld.

But while there's certainly an element of naked opportunism at work here, there is more to this war on Christmas business than just that.

Populist demagogues make all sorts of money capitalizing on popular anger, and wouldn't be out defending Christmas if they didn't perceive a simmering fury in their conservative flock.

Fox's Megyn Kelly knew just what she was doing when she told viewers this month that, like Santa, "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like … he's a historical figure, that's a verifiable fact … I just want kids to know that."

Again, you'd think Kelly, an ascending prime-time star who used to practise law, would know better than to imagine that an Aramaic-speaking man who lived two millennia ago in a tiny country a few hundred kilometres from Africa would have looked like a Norwegian.

She did kind of concede a few days later that she might have been wrong about Jesus's skin colour — "as I've learned in the past two days, that is far from settled," she told an on-air forum.

But what she was really doing in the first instance, though, was standing up for America's aggrieved white Christians, a cohort that's watched in frustration as ethnic populations have grown in size and political power, causing Norman Rockwell's America to fade before their eyes.

A former corporate lawyer and now host of Fox News Channel's "The Kelly Files," Megyn Kelly stirred the media pot last week by saying both Santa and Jesus were white men. Has no one told her about Santa Claus? (Associated Press)

Theirs is a cry of cultural nostalgia, from people who have probably never given much thought to what a decorated evergreen tree or a sprig of mistletoe or a Yule log might have to do with the deity they consider their saviour, any more than they've reflected on what His death by crucifixion has to do with giant rabbits and chocolate chickens and eggs.

To them, those symbols are conflated with their religion, just as all those Second World War-vintage carols are sacred music, even though, like the modern companies trying to adjust to a more multi-ethnic America, many of them don't mention Jesus at all.

Lower your muskets

Those in the front lines against the war on Christmas see no contradiction between carrying a copy of the U.S. constitution around in their pockets and cursing governments that are increasingly vigilant about enforcing the (constitutional) separation of church and state.

The fact is, Christmas is under no real threat, any more than gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriage. I still celebrate the former and practise the latter unhindered.

True, the notion of America as a Judeo-Christian country is under challenge. That's because it isn't Judeo-Christian, either by law or, increasingly, in reality.

America, as Barack Obama once noted, is a country of believers and non-believers, a country of various faiths and, especially in its big cities, multicoloured.

Christmas is not under attack. It's just evolving. There's no war against it, and nobody I know hates it. (Although the early Puritans did, for its pagan iconography, and banned it.)

Whenever I wish people Merry Christmas, as I still insist on doing, all I ever get is a happy response. Even from the tie lady. This is a free country. There's really nothing in these festivities to be angry about.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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