Understanding the Non-Existent War on Christmas

David Roberts writes a newsletter about “the technology, politics and policy of decarbonization”. He also writes a lot on Twitter. A few days ago, he wrote about the meaning of the “War on Christmas”:

I’ve always thought it’s worth examining the WoC more closely, not because it’s particularly important, but almost the opposite: because it’s so obviously silly & the stakes are so low, it’s easier to see the underlying dynamics clearly, without strong priors getting in the way.

To review: once upon a time, pretty much all US stores & public facilities put up Christmas decorations & had clerks & employees say “Merry Christmas!” around the holiday season. It was a reflection of the total dominance of white Christian culture in the US.

Over time, demographics & opinions shifted, at least in some quarters. It became clear that centering Christmas excludes Jews, Muslims, atheists . . . all the many US subcultures that don’t celebrate Xmas. Some businesses/institutions became leery of alienating customers/patrons.

Some places replaced Xmas decorations & “Merry Xmas!” with more generic *holiday* decorations & “Happy holidays!” The idea was that the more generic approach would welcome Christians but *also* welcome other cultures — welcoming all, alienating none. What’s the problem?

Anyway, RW media got hold of this & spun it into a “War On Christmas,” telling listeners & viewers that it was the first step to eliminating Christmas altogether & part of a larger war on Christianity. . . .Β 

Why is this interesting? Because it makes the conceptual structure of the US culture war extremely clear. Most culture war struggles share this structure.

First thing to say: generic “holiday” celebrations & greetings do not hurt or diminish Christians or Christmas.

That’s crucial. Nobody’s targeting or trying to diminish Christmas. Everyone who celebrates it can continue doing so.

What generic-holiday does is *decenter* Christmas. It renders Christmas just one holiday celebration among others, Christianity just one culture among others.

In trying to accommodate everyone, generic-holiday implicitly says that Christians are not *special*. They are one group living among other groups, as equals, all of which are free to live their cultures as they see fit, none of which have a right to dominate or exclude others.

And that, of course, is precisely the problem for the reactionaries on the right. For them, on a deep level, being dominant — having your culture, your folkways, your needs, your feelings centered — is *part of* the culture. Without domination, the culture is nothing.

That’s why so much of the War On Christmas rhetoric is about how Christmas is being “destroyed” by this, or how Christianity will be “wiped out.” If they lose being centered, lose being dominant, then in a very real way they *do* lose a culture premised on hegemony.

“To those accustomed to domination, equality feels like oppression.” There’s a reason versions of this clichΓ© are everywhere these days — we’re seeing it play out in arena after arena. To reactionaries, being told their culture is one among equals feels like erasure.

Silly as it is, the War On Christmas clearly exposes the fundamental struggle unfolding in the US.

To some of us, the essence of the US is as a neutral framework, where any culture can thrive, anyone from any background can succeed, all are treated fairly & with dignity.

Obviously the US has never lived up to that ideal, but as Obama said so eloquently, the struggle to come closer & closer to that ideal *is* America — it’s the most American thing of all. All those outsiders who forced the US to be more fair & open are the real American heroes.

Reactionaries, on a deep & fundamental level, do not share that vision of America. To them, America is a white, patriarchal, “Judeo-Christian” nation — a particular people, a particular culture. Sure, we’ll accept guests, Others can live here, but never forget who’s in charge.

In some sense it’s a trivial question: Do you say “happy holidays” & accommodate everyone or say “merry Christmas” & implicitly tell everyone who’s not a Christian to accept, without complaint, that they are secondary, subsidiary, peripheral — *less*.

But within that trivial question is embedded ALL the questions facing the US. Are we trying to be a genuine multiethnic, multicultural, diverse society, united by a framework of neutral rules that treat us all the same? Do we want everyone to feel welcome, with equal citizenship?

Or are we, at root, a white patriarchal Christian society that, at its discretion/whims, sometimes allows other kinds of people to live among us? Is the declining dominance of that subculture tantamount to America itself declining? Is diversity our enemy, as Tucker Carlson says?

That fundamental struggle is reflected, in a fractal way, in the silly fight over Christmas. It’s just one more way for the hegemonic demographic/subculture to tell the rest of us, “if we don’t get to dominate, we’re erased, and we’ll blow it all up before that happens.”

You’re seeing it everywhere now with rising right-wing violence & extremism. On some level, white patriarchal Christian culture already realizes that loss is inevitable — and it is fully ready to bring the whole structure down before it will live as equals among equals.

The real question this raises for me — the ultimate question of America, really — is whether it’s *possible* to have a true multiethnic multicultural society of equals. Is it possible for everyone to be happy even if no one gets to hear their special holiday greeting in public?

Or are there just too many reactionaries, too many people for whom the only alternative to domination is submission/humiliation, too many people who simply can’t *conceive* of genuine equality, for the thing to work? Can a country w/ NO privileged culture survive & prosper?

I dunno. (I used to be a confident Yes, a confident believer in the possibility of true democracy, but now . . . I dunno.)


Remember when they said allowing same-sex couples to marry would “destroy the institution of marriage”?Β 

I’ll say it again. When the authoritarians hear “we’re all in this together”, they think it’s a threat.