The splendid little War on Christmas

Sarah Palin and her cohorts are profiting from the war on Christmas.

Brian Reinken

My favorite part of the holiday season is the nonsense that surrounds the supposed “War on Christmas.” I’m always hopeful that this year’s chaos will exceed last year’s. Thankfully, timelier than Santa Claus, Sarah Palin granted my seasonal wish.

Palin visited the Mall of America late last month as part of her ongoing book tour promoting “Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas.” Therein, she talks about how disturbing it is that the United States has marginalized a “traditional” holiday like Christmas.

The War on Christmas, if we’re to believe people like Palin, grows more brutal each year. However, in America, the warmongering isn’t new. In fact, it goes back to the days of colonial New England. The John Birch Society introduced the war in its modern form in 1959 when it published a pamphlet titled “There Goes Christmas?!”

The pamphlet’s author — I promise I’m not making this up — claimed the United Nations and the communists had allied in a plot to convert America into a nation of atheists, thus weakening the United States’ moral character and its resolve to fight in the Cold War. The first step of this conversion, naturally, was to undermine the holiday spirit in department stores.

This proved such a powerful narrative that we continue to recycle it today. America might look a little different. It might be fighting different enemies. But that golden myth of Christmas corruption chugs along essentially unchanged.

The war has survived because it’s easy to believe. People like Christmas, and they hate war. People like what they know and are suspicious of what’s different or unknown. The back cover of Palin’s book is implicitly xenophobic in its condemnation of secularization.

Unfortunately, most arguments about the war run along a similar line. Talking head Bill O’Reilly has criticized department stores’ decisions to wish customers a “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” instead of “merry Christmas.” He echoes another conservative figurehead, Patrick Buchanan, who once called the same phenomenon a hate crime against Christianity. Yes, he went there.

It’s the people like Buchanan who bring the War on Christmas into our living rooms. Sure, there are fringe groups who whisper about the similarities between the words “Santa” and “Satan” — as though everyone on the planet speaks and writes in English — but these people don’t typically have the media power of Palin or O’Reilly.

That power is a crucial aspect of the War on Christmas. Palin and O’Reilly are hugely influential figures, and they know it. It’s because they have power that they’re able to sell their ideas and that people keep buying them. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, but what’s a war without a few profiteers?

Make no mistake: Palin is making plenty of money off of her book. O’Reilly does the same on television. You can’t help but get the sense that the War is a legend a few stakeholders actively cultivate.

I’m fully convinced — well, mostly convinced — Palin recognizes the irony inherent in using a commercialized book about Christmas to talk about the over-commercialization of the holiday in today’s society.

The deeper irony, one that Palin may not realize, is that her politicization of Christmas works to destabilize the holiday in the way she most fears. 

In one way, the warmongers are right. Christmas isn’t supposed to be about Christmas trees or the “yule log.” But by arguing about how oppressive it is that society doesn’t display a tree on every street corner from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, Palin and the like-minded have made Christmas about commercialization. 

The warmongers have made Christmas into an issue like taxation or immigration. They argue the holiday is supposed to be about religion, not shopping, but the manner in which they argue makes the holiday about something else entirely. Christmas becomes another way to criticize a political system with which Palin and her kin disagree. It becomes a tool for Palin’s version of the Kingdom of Caesar, a part of the Christmas landscape that’s as enduring as television specials and department store sales.

Ultimately, if anyone out there wants to stop the War on Christmas, the first step would be to avoid Palin’s book, which is fueling the war lobby’s rhetorical fire. Without kindling, her arguments just can’t burn.

Although I suspect Palin would disagree, it might be best to invoke the Christmas words of John Lennon and Yoko Ono: “War is over / if you want it.”