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The War on Christmas or a War of Words?

December 13, 2010

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!
3 Comments leave one →
  1. john giertz permalink
    December 22, 2010 1:18 pm

    I’m not sure if you are defending the “liberal” use of the word “holidays” or simply trying to make the point that conservatives tend to get awfully upset over changes in rhetorical landscape. Of course Christians and many conservatives are upset over the on-going bull dozing of the phrase “Merry Christmas AND a happy New Year”–notice both hoildays included? Christmas is certainly a holiday which celebrates Christ–hard to get away from that. So if people don’t want to celebrate anything to do with Christ then they don’t have to. And if Christians are fighting for the original sense and meaning of the term then what is the problem. Why should they ever stop? In fact, giving up over such a rhetorical battle is something which people, as Burke refers to us as symbol using and symbol misusing creatures, should never do until there is no longer anyone who disagrees. It is the rhetorical battle which is important. And this rhetorical battle, I hope, never goes away, until, as Lincoln said, “We are all one thing or another.”

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      December 23, 2010 2:53 am

      Hi John! Thanks for your comment. To answer your question, I wasn’t really trying to defend the use of the word “holidays” (although this is my own personally preferred form) as opposed to “Christmas.” My goal in this post was merely to point out that this debate focuses mostly on institutional discourse as opposed to the individual sentiments behind it.

      As I said, I’m one of those people that says “happy holidays,” if for no other reason that it allows me to be somewhat absent-minded about who’s Christian or Jewish or neither, and to give well-wishes for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years all at the same time for whoever wants to celebrate what. And I’m fairly sure that in wishing friends, colleagues, etc. “happy holidays,” I’ve never offended anyone; I’ve at least never gotten a negative reaction. But if I were writing ad copy or something, the reactions I’d elicit for making public text based on the exact same mindset would probably be a lot different. So it seems to me that the debate isn’t over whether or not it’s okay for people to say “happy holidays,” but over what it means when institutions choose to do so.

      I think it’s the same sort of language ideology that leads people–I’m assuming most of whom would be appalled by the use of racist or sexist language in the public sphere–to vociferously oppose “political correctness.” It’s not the sentiments behind using or not using the language practices in question that matter to the public debate, it’s the question of whether or not the institutional adoption of specific language policies somehow belies a deeper agenda.

      That said, with no ideological stance whatsoever implied, allow me to wish you happy holidays (all of ’em) and thank you for your readership of our little project here.


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