The War on Christmas or a War of Words?
If there’s one thing liberals hate, it’s a holiday. You see, every year at around this time, scheming, godless leftists come together in order to wage a guerilla “war on Christmas,” for the sole purpose of making everyone’s winter even more bleak and miserable. Or so you’d think if you listened to any number of conservative politicians and conservative commentators. This year, the heavy artillery in this so-called war is a billboard just outside the Lincoln Tunnel sponsored by American Athiests, which refers to a nativity scene as a “myth.”
Usually, though, what conservatives think is the ammo in the war on Christmas isn’t quite so confrontational.
As this handy timeline of the 2010 war on Christmas from The Week magazine indicates (along with the Ron Paul editorial I linked to above), more often than not the clash is over some use of the word “holiday(s)” instead of “Christmas.”
While conservative Christians claim that this is some deliberate attempt to exclude them from the public sphere (because you sure do get marginalized a lot when you’re a member of the biggest religious group in the country), this doesn’t really make sense if we think about the specific practices in question. Christmas is, in fact, a holiday. And even wishing Christians “happy holidays” is perfectly accurate, as most Christians in America celebrate at least Christmas and New Years. Count ’em—that’s two holidays this season.
So if there’s really nothing wrong with saying “happy holidays,” then what are conservatives so worried about? I’ll tell you: language. Particularly public uses of it and institutional policies relating to it. See, it seems that when conservative Christians get upset over the phrase “happy holidays,” it isn’t that they really think it somehow excludes Christmas, but that the phrase isn’t focused on it in the ways that they like. Divisive billboards aside, most of the clamor in this alleged war is over businesses not making explicit reference to Christmas, or over whether or not it’s okay for public holiday displays to have overt religious thematic content.
What conservatives call “the war on Christmas,” then, is really “concern over the absence of explicit official references to the religious significance of Christmas.” Less of a snappy title, sure, but think about it. Have you ever heard a conservative pundit complain about a neighbor’s holiday display that contains only snowmen and Santa with no manger? But if their town decides to have a “holiday parade,” that’s another story altogether.
This issue isn’t really about Christians being somehow increasingly excluded from their own holiday, it’s about the amount of official public attention they feel the religious aspect of the holiday should receive. Sure, the two things sound a lot alike, but they stem from different fears. Again, billboards aside, the choice of targets for conservative scorn indicates that it’s the planned, institutional nature of “the war on Christmas” that makes it so threatening to them. It’s not that they’re legitimately threatened by the sentiment behind inclusiveness or that they think that everyone should be forced to celebrate Christmas, Christian and non-Christian alike. It’s that they’re afraid that the official nature of these policies masks some conspiratorial attempt to engineer religion out of the holiday. And if you’re focused on this official level, every time someone in some institutional capacity says “happy holidays” it can be seen as a victory for a more liberal linguistic agenda.
So where companies, municipalities, and whatnot see an opportunity to include people of all religions in their public advertisements and displays, conservative Christians see a sneaky attempt to exclude them from their own celebration. Ultimately, though, this isn’t a religious issue. It’s an issue about the public use of language and symbols, and the power that institutional language policies can have over public thought. When confused people object “but not everyone celebrates Christmas so we shouldn’t just assume,” they’re missing the point. The issue isn’t whether or not everyone celebrates Christmas, it’s the face conservatives feel they lose when official language changes to reflect that fact.
If you want to know more:
- Companies and other institutions opting for “holiday(s)” instead of “Christmas” is an example of what Norman Fairclough, in “Discourse and Social Change” and elsewhere, calls “the technologization of discourse.” It stems from a recognition on behalf of these institutions that particular linguistic practices have particular rhetorical effects, and indicates an attempt to control those effects through careful, deliberate language use. This, in fact, is exactly what conservatives are so afraid of, as they question the motivation behind this engineering.
- The article I linked to about public holiday displays is about a hooplah in my hometown last year. Hi Mom!