The Fox Who Stole Merry Christmas

by Michael C. Dorf

For many years, I cheerily wished my Christian friends a "merry Christmas." I'm Jewish but from childhood I had happy associations with Christmas and other events Christians celebrated. Each year, my family helped our Unitarian neighbors trim their tree. On Christmas Day itself, we typically joined our Armenian Apostolic family friends for a festive meal. And I attended the first Communion and Confirmation of a close childhood friend who was Catholic (as he attended my Bar Mitzvah).

Saying "merry Christmas" to my Christian friends was for years simply automatic--a way of acknowledging that in a country blessed with religious freedom, there was nothing remotely uncomfortable, much less political, about extending good wishes to one's friends and neighbors on occasions that they deem significant, even if those occasions hold no special religious significance for me. It didn't occur to me not to wish a friend "happy birthday" simply because it wasn't also my birthday; and likewise, I think I would have been puzzled by the notion that there's anything strange about wishing a Christian a merry Christmas.

But that was all before FoxNews launched its war on what it deemed the War on Christmas.

To be clear, even during what we might call the ante bellum (contra Nativitatem) period, I did not willy-nilly wish a merry Christmas to my fellow Jews or to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or nonbelievers, nor did I wish a merry Christmas to people whose religious affiliation, if any, was unknown to me. Doing so would have made little sense and could have communicated a message of second-class citizenship by presuming that the default American is Christian.

That said, during the ante bellum period, I was never offended when a stranger wished me a merry Christmas. While the person doing the wishing would have done better not to assume that everyone in America is a Christian or, perhaps worse, that even those Americans who aren't Christians celebrate Christmas, I understood that such well wishers generally had good intentions. "Merry Christmas" was not quite "ceremonial Deism" (a term coined by Yale Law School Dean Eugene Rostow and later adopted by the Supreme Court to refer to de minimis official invocations of the divine), but it was a kind of close cousin--what we might call ceremonial non-denominational Christianity.

Here's how things would have worked ideally in the ante bellum period:

(1) Official government statements and events would avoid expressly religious imagery, choosing holiday decorations and themes that are inclusive;

(2) That would leave plenty of room for recognition of the fact that a national and in most places a local majority of the population celebrate Christmas;

(3) Given the history and culture, it would thus be acceptable to include in, say, a public school concert, performances of expressly Christmas-themed material, in recognition that one can appreciate the art and music of another culture or religion without exactly participating;

(4) Individuals who did object on behalf of themselves or their minor children would be given broad rights to opt out;

(5) Individuals in their one-on-one relationships with friends, acquaintances, and strangers would feel free to wish one another individual-appropriate tidings and would make an effort not to assume that others shared their affiliations or beliefs;

(6) And everyone would be fine with the occasional mistake due to inadvertence, inattention, or an excess of caution, in recognition that there are more important things in life than getting upset by someone else's mistake--even an avoidable mistake--in conveying holiday wishes.

But that was then. Since Fox News and the right-wing outrage machine began promoting the myth that a vast secular/atheist/Jewish/Muslim conspiracy is determined to purge American culture of all reminders of the existence of Christianity, it has become almost impossible to wish anyone a merry Christmas without risking being perceived as having made a political statement.

As a consequence of the war on the War on Christmas, I find myself reluctant to say "merry Christmas" even to people I know to be Christians who celebrate Christmas, lest they think that I am now saying that phrase to everyone as an act of defiance against the supposed conspiracy of political correctness. Meanwhile, generic non-denominational phrases like "happy holidays" have also been politicized by the same forces, so that I am reluctant to use such phrases to strangers, like, say, a cashier at a store in a town through which I'm traveling around this time of year, for fear that this too will be seen as a political statement. True, it would be a political statement that comes closer to my actual views, but there are times when you simply want to buy an oat milk macchiato and exchange pleasantries with the barista without making a political statement of any sort.

Thus, one ironic result of the Fox News war on the fictional War on Christmas has been to make some people less likely to wish others a merry Christmas or any kind of good feeling at all.

That said, in contexts in which it is possible to give a full explanation--such as a blog post--I remain happy to wish everyone a person-specific greeting. Accordingly, I wish all my readers a merry, happy, whatever it is you celebrate from all the regulars here at DoL. We will go not entirely dark for the next week and a half, but we will post new material less frequently. Enjoy the break!