By Beau Grosscup
The grocery cashier handed me my change and receipt. With a cherry voice and sparkle in her eye, she said: “Merry Christmas.”
“Happy Hanukah to you” I sweetly replied. A frown crept across her brow.
“I’m not Jewish,’ she said.
“I’m not Christian,” I responded. I walked away leaving a slightly confused Christian cashier pondering what had just happened.
I had no doubt what had occurred.
For over a decade of Decembers, the Christian Right, led by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News cable, has charged a War on Christmas (and thus Christianity) is under way. They claimed that secular and non-Christian groups and organizations were purposely discouraging or disallowing the celebration or mention of Christmas and its religious symbols and meaning. Their often-ferocious counter-attack has focused among other things on corporate policy that instructs employees to wish customers a multi-cultural/religious neutral ‘Happy Holiday.’
For his part, Mr. O’Reilly has highlighted government policies and political leaders who insist on the separation of church and state in public institutions (mainly schools) and public arenas. They, Mr. O’Reilly insists, are ‘secular progressives’ out to undermine, if not do away with ‘traditional’ America; a nation he and others claim was founded on Christianity.
In its recent December 17, 2012 issue, Newsweek declared the War on Christmas over and that Christmas (and Commander–in-Chief Bill O’Reilly) had won.
To the amazement of many, a gleeful yet no less determined Mr. O’Reilly continues to lead his counter-attack against the War on Christmas. To understand why he and others continue to do battle requires exploring what the so-called War on Christmas was/is about and what are its larger implications.
In short, it is not a war on Christianity or even Christmas per se. It is a struggle against the privileged position of Christianity (and thus Christmas) in a society based on the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.
It is this ‘tradition’ of privileging Christianity that Mr. O’Reilly and other anti-War on Christmas forces are determined to defend, indeed, restore. Most are not, Mr. O’Reilly included, out to undermine the First Amendment principles related to religion. They are however, determined to re-establish Christianity’s traditional privileged position as ‘first among religions.’ After all, they claim, the United States was founded on Christian values (tolerance, love thy neighbor, etc.) what they label the ‘philosophy of Christianity.’
In addition, from the Nation’s very founding a majority of North Americans were and are now Christian. Is not, they ask, democracy based on majority rule? From their vantage point, all this was settled long ago, evidenced by the acceptance as ‘normal’ the tradition of Christian-based prayer in school, nativity scenes on public property or publicly funded, Christmas as a Federal holiday, Christian-based symbols (Christmas trees), the use of the Bible as swearing in ceremonies, etc.
The so-called War on Christmas challenges the primacy of these traditions. It does so armed with the principle of equal opportunity; the same weapon that challenged and eventually defeated other cherished ‘traditions’ such as slavery, Jim Crow, race/gender/class/religion/sexual preference employment and voting discrimination and on and on. Thus, while Newsweek, in claiming Christmas (Christianity) won the War on Christmas, can cite some small victories such as saying ‘Merry Christmas,’ and calling the symbolic tree a Christmas tree, a larger battle remains engaged on multiple fronts.
Bill O’Reilly and others know this, which is why he has purposely broadened his nightly counter-attack on the War on Christmas to a permanent battle against his self-anointed ‘secular progressives’ and their multi-cultural agenda. It is also why the political Right funds and conducts their multiple ‘Wars:’ a War on Women to re-establish the privileges of ‘traditional’ patriarchy, a racist War on Drugs to maintain the ‘tradition’ of institutional racism, a War on the Middle and Working Class (unions in particular) to enhance capitalist class privilege and power; a War on Voting Fraud to maintain the traditional privileges of White political power now facing the reality of shifting voter demographics; and of course a War on Terror aimed at securing and enhancing the privileges of imperial power.
Thus, despite Newsweek’s proclamation, the War on Christmas is not over nor will it be for a long time. It is only one small piece of a much larger struggle that engages multiple forces in multiple venues as large as the global stage and as small as the grocery store check out counter. Yes, thanks to Bill O’Reilly and others, my cashier can confidently wish everyone a ‘Merry Christmas’ without fear of retribution or criticism. A small victory for their side I guess, my secular progressive self tells me. Still, her confused look at my Happy Hanukah greeting tells me a progressive chord may have been struck. Indeed, some learning may have even taken place. Next time, I think I will wish the Merry Christmas-maker a Happy Quanza and see where that takes us.
Beau Grosscup is a Professor at California State University Chico.