Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard the phrase “The war on Christmas” invoked more and more frequently. Often, it comes from the mouths of conservative media commentators, but more often it comes from the keyboards of conservative acquaintances on social media, as evoking a culture war in which Christians are the defenders against an onslaught of political correctness that is seeking to erase the Christian religion one holiday tradition at a time.
Frequently, this phrase is used to deride such innocuous abbreviations as “Xmas,” or to denounce casual references to “happy holidays” as being evidence of said war on Christmas.
Decrying the usage of “Xmas,” the complainants often wrongly assume that this siglum was only coined in recent years as a way to avoid offending anyone who wasn’t Christian, part of a larger movement to secularize Christmas and to remove the religious elements from it. But this cipher for Christmas has been used ever since the 16th century, drawing from an earlier tradition, the common Biblical Greek abbreviation for Christ — XC — where the Greek letter Chi, appearing like a Latin X, begins the name Christos. Said abbreviation was used by the very scribes that copied the manuscripts of the Bible itself.
The term “war on Christmas” is also often used to denounce the phrase “happy holidays,” as if that greeting was only coined by politically correct, hyper-liberals who felt that saying “merry Christmas” would be offensive to non-Christians, and therefore must be discontinued in a spirit of sensitivity and multiculturalism. While some may use it in such a manner, this claim ignores the fact that this was a very old greeting used by Christians themselves all throughout the 20th century.
“Christians have exchanged the greeting ‘happy holidays’ among themselves for decades,” said Sarah Pruitt quoting Andrew McGill in an article on History.com, “most with the understanding that the ‘holidays’ meant the season of Advent, the four-Sunday cycle … that includes Christmas and ends on the Feast of the Epiphany. But [as] Christmas turned from a religious occasion to a largely secular one for many people, the phrase ‘happy holidays’ also expanded its usage, becoming a more universal greeting used to include people of various religions, and even a nod to the New Year.”
As one can see, the tradition of wishing someone “happy holidays” did not start with liberals trying to de-Christianize Christmas, or banning Christ from Christmas, or America, for that matter. Rather, it was a shorthand designed by Christians to speak of the entire Christian holiday season of Advent.
But even more often, I find the claim of there being a war on Christmas attached to arguments over whether traditional displays and symbols of the Christian holidays should be allowed on public lands or in public schools. Often, it is claimed that non-Christian, or anti-Christian forces have gathered as part of a larger and more insidious war on Christianity.
However, in my observations, it seems that more often than not, the complaints about rogue Christmas decorations and the offensiveness of the ubiquitous displays of sectarian religious celebration often come from middle-class white liberals (sometimes of erstwhile Christian extraction), and not the Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu citizens or immigrants whose sensibilities these aforementioned complainants are supposedly trying to defend.
I have found that, on the contrary, more and more secular Jews are celebrating Christmas themselves (i.e. the “Hanukkah bush”, etc.) as part of a larger embracing of, and assimilation into, general American culture. And many of the recent immigrants from non-Judeo-Christian cultures, as an expression of their gratitude to be here, are perfectly happy to view and support someone else’s celebratory fervor. As far back as 2016, groups of Muslims joined with the Islamic Center of Southern California to share Christmas cheer with their neighbors at various local Christian churches in Southern California on Christmas Eve, bringing small treats such as hot chocolate, cookies, and even Christmas cards to show their loving solidarity with their fellow children of Abraham. Not much of a war on Christmas there.
But truly, there is a war being waged against Christmas by large corporate interests that seek to convert every American (Christian or not) to their religion – that of Mammon, that of worshipping and willingly allowing themselves to be enslaved by the almighty dollar.
Christmas — formerly a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian faith, and celebrated universal values such as charity and compassion and peace — has become largely devoid of all that in its popular expressions. It has traded this in for rampant hyper-capitalistic ideals such as greed and excess — ones which would have embarrassed Adam Smith, the “father of capitalism” himself.
An occasional nod to charity is given in the myriad holiday TV specials, after the main character awakens from a dream in which they have embodied the Scrooge character for 22 minutes, and finally learns the true meaning of Christmas. But those who are “less fortunate than us” are safely out of sight, only given a few spare coins through the Salvation Army Santa in front of various retail stores, merely to quell our consciences as we continue to consume, in order to satiate the beast that has stolen our souls. And we are forced to work harder and longer to pay for this addiction.
And so, Christmas became less of a holiday celebration of family and peacemaking and charity, and wholly one of exchanging gifts with those who need them the least. The shopping itself has become our sacrament, our religious obligation, the beginning of our season of Advent. For a number of years, many people have been seen to camp out in front of stores for days on end, even prior to Thanksgiving, just for the chance at a “really amazing deal.”
The war on Christmas is being waged by the least likely suspects – the self-proclaimed defenders of Western and Christian values themselves — and Christmas is losing. Many have succumbed to the Prince of Purchase, the enemy of the holiday who stands enrobed in its very garb, chanting its praises.
When I was a child, my mother and father would do a tremendous amount of charity leading up to the holidays. It was how they celebrated the holidays. As an adult, in my non-profit work, I try to continue this tradition, even if not in the same manner. My wife and I do not exchange gifts for holidays or birthdays. We are satisfied with each other’s presence in our lives. But we have devoted our lives to charity. Everything we do is somehow associated with charity, even our professions, and we ramp up our efforts during the Christmas (and other winter holidays) season.
So I encourage you to challenge yourselves. Without insulting or hurting your loved ones, instead of buying as many gifts, take a larger portion of your holiday gift budget each successive year and donate it to charities. Pick local ones that will have a directly visible effect. Pick ones that serve local schools and children that are food-insecure. Or get involved in such a way that you will be able to see the faces of those you are supporting, but anonymously, so as not to make them feel uncomfortable about the source. And maybe give your donations in the name of a loved one and let them know that you gave something in their name.
Get your children involved, too. Have them help you shop for a toy to be given to a needy child. Have them pick one out that they think the other child would like. Make it an object lesson in selflessness for them. Take Christmas Eve with your family and volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Or volunteer to deliver for Meals on Wheels, when many such programs close down for the actual holiday itself, so that an elder can have a hot meal on Christmas. Such programs are often in need of willing volunteers for Christmas Day. This, I assure you, will produce a holiday experience you will never forget.
I challenge you to incorporate some of this into your lives. This is the only way we will win against those who wage the real “war on Christmas.”L. Arik Greenberg, Ph.D. is founder and president of the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice. He is an ardent advocate for interfaith dialogue and collaboration as pathways to world peace. He received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Claremont Graduate University. He currently serves on the Theology faculty of both Loyola Marymount University and Ezra University.