Is There a War on Christmas, and Does Santa Know? Part 2
By Kat Kent, December 8, 2016
So where’s the war?
Most Christian groups point to the 1980’s as the beginning of the war, when the Whitehouse tree was called a “holiday” tree instead of a Christmas tree. Retailers were realizing that many different faith groups celebrated holidays at the end of the year, and a more inclusive marketing approach was utilized. “Merry Christmas” became “Happy Holidays” and municipalities began to include secular displays on public lands. This seemed to anger Christian groups who seemed insulted by the forced inclusion.
Bill Donohue, writer on the far right leaning news site, News Max, popular with Christians, states his take on how the “war” began in his article “We’re Winning the War on Christmas” published on December 19, 2012: “The “War on Christmas” began in earnest in the 1980s when the American Civil Liberties Union was filing one lawsuit after another attempting to ban manger scenes on public property. In the 1990s, the Christmas wars morphed into the multicultural agenda of the nation’s schools, affecting curricula and school concerts. Worse, even the private sector began a campaign to neuter Christmas in the workplace. But after peaking circa 2005, there has been increasing evidence — especially in the past three years — that the anti-Christmas activists are losing.”
Donohue also refers to the Freedom From Religion Foundation as a “militant atheist organization” that is also responsible for the “assault” on the Christian Christmas.
And the Catholic League keeps this entry posted on their website:
“In 2012, American Atheists decided to make a big splash. American Atheists and its supporters do not want to be left alone—they want to inflame the passions of those with whom they disagree. Unlike Christians who do not provoke, harass or otherwise mock atheists, American Atheists wants nothing more than to stick it to Christians at Christmastime.” (italics mine) Anyone see the same irony in this statement that I do?
Statements like the one made by Thomas Moore Society President and Chief Counsel Tom Brejcha, tend to explain their intent: ”Atheist groups may mock our message, but we will not be silent as it is critical that Christians proclaim the Gospel message to their fellow citizens”. (italics mine) And some do so whether it is welcomed or not!
But in creating the frenzy and the desired “victimization” of Christians, Christian groups made some very serious errors. In 2015, two satirical fake news sites, Fox News The Facebook Page and TD Alliance, reported that Obama had banned sending troops in the mid east Christmas cards because it offended Muslims. An admitted complete work of fiction, right leaning Christians hijacked the article and used it to convince their supporters of the “Muslim president’s war on Christmas”. No one ever cared to research the source of this obvious satirical news site. There goes all credibility of complainers! Not only were some of the more gullible falling for this sensationalism, it seemed that most of the claims of a “war” were in fact examples of complete intolerance.
The following is a list of incidents found on various Christian Organization and News sites that were deemed by Christians as “assaults” or “battles against Christianity”:
Providence, RI – The Catholic League organized a protest of the town’s tree lighting ceremony, because Governor Lincoln Chafee had called the tree a “holiday” tree the year before instead of a “Christmas” tree, in order to be more inclusive of all citizens in the township. Their disruptive protest forced the Governor to cancel the tree lighting, and quickly reschedule it with only 30 minutes notice in an effort to keep protestors from spoiling the event.
Morganton, NC – Officials at Western Piedmont College, trying once again to be inclusive, changed the wording on a flier for a charity “Christmas Tree” sale to “Holiday Tree” sale. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian group, sent a letter condemning the “prohibition of Christmas” as being unconstitutional.
Santa Monica, CA – Palisades Park, a public park, provided space to all groups who wished to erect holiday displays, according to the law. Atheists had erected a display among the religious ones that angered the Catholic League. After their attempts to demand that the atheist display be removed, the town decided to let no one display, in order to keep conflict at a minimum during the holidays. The Christian group’s attorney said after the ruling, “The city, on the advice of its city attorney, has abdicated its duty to protect the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and the free exercise of religion within a traditional public forum, a city park. The City Council members surrendered to the angry mob and in the process have announced to the world that religious freedom can be sought elsewhere but not in Santa Monica.” But it was, in fact, the Christians who were acting unlawfully.
Chicago, IL – The Arlington Heights Park District approved the display of a nativity scene on public property after intervention by the Thomas More Society, to be set up apart from the annual seasonal lights display in the same park and the nativity display was to be marked private. This would allow a “work around” to the ordinance that prohibited anything but secular displays on government properties. The Catholic League still finds this compromise unacceptable.
Many of these incidents surround the laws regarding private displays on public lands. There are two principal Supreme Court decisions concerning the display of religious symbols on public grounds. The Court in both cases has stated that determining the constitutionality of such displays requires an individual examination by the local governing authorities to determine if the display is endorsing a religion. (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984). If the display context viewed by a “reasonable observer” tends to send the message that the government endorses religion, then the display violates the Establishment Clause of the law. However, if a display is in a public space, NOT the property of a government affiliated body, the freedom of expression law protects it. Any group has the right to petition to erect their own display, under the same guidelines. The law was written to give priority to no group.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is an organization that tackles the problem of government and groups who try to circumvent or blatantly break the laws meant to keep religious endorsement out of our government. They get thousands of complaints from many different groups, atheist and religious believers alike, who take the separation of church and state seriously. They would not exist without these complaints, and they are addressing a need seen by most, but detested and demonetized by those who repeatedly abuse the law. In situations of government affiliated properties, they have sued to have improper displays removed. They rarely lose these lawsuits. But the angst of Christians seems to be most encouraged by the FFRF’s own holiday display that is erected on public lands open to all equally.
The sign reads:
At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail.
There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world.
Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
While this display is indeed in conflict with religious beliefs, it in no way condemns those who disagree, and is quite appropriate for the atheists who exist among the same public as the Christians. And it is certainly not “militant” in nature. Does it simply come down to the fact that Christians want only their beliefs advertised during a holiday season that includes many religions and beliefs, as well as no belief at all? Do Christians think that because their churches have hijacked the holiday, and renamed it, that they now have a mandate to see that it is celebrated in the “right” way by everyone regardless of their own personal belief? Why can’t the Christians display within the boundaries of the law, and share public space where appropriate? The simplest answer would be to stop all displays on public lands, and force the religious back to their own church properties. But isn’t Christmas about uniting with others of different beliefs all in the spirit of Peace and Joy? Why take such offense when others exercise their own “freedom of or from religion”? When you live in a democratic community whose regulations and laws are equally applied, you can’t expect everyone to bow to only your gods, or for that matter, any gods at all.
Here are some of the “complaints” regarding FFRF actions that have appeared on Christian organizations and news sites.
Madison, WI – The Freedom From Religion Foundation placed its “Natural Nativity Scene” in the Wisconsin State Capitol Rotunda for the second year in a row. It featured Emma Goldman, Darwin, Jefferson, Mark Twain, Einstein, the Statue of Liberty, the goddess Venus and an African American baby girl in the manger.
Milwaukee, WI – For the second year in a row, the Freedom From Religion Foundation placed their “Winter Solstice” sign in the Milwaukee courthouse to protest what they refer to as an “inappropriate nativity scene.”
San Angelo, TX – “The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint on behalf of a local member demanding the removal of the cross, which the San Angelo Police Department places on top of its building as part of its annual Christmas display.”
Incidents like those above are clear violations of federal law. If complaints are filed, there is an obligation to investigate and take action if necessary.
Anchorage, AK – “As part of its anti-Christmas campaign, the Freedom From Religion Foundation ran four signs on ten buses: 1) “Yes, Virginia… There is no God” 2) “Imagine No Religion” 3) “Sleep in on Sundays” 4) “Enjoy Life Now. There is no Afterlife.”” It seems to me this is anti-god, not anti “Christmas”.
Niles, IL – “The Freedom From Religion Foundation placed a “Winter Solstice” sign in the Village of Niles Plaza to protest the town’s life-size nativity scene. It featured the Bill of Rights in a manger surrounded by the Statue of Liberty and three Founding Fathers.” They have the legal right to share their view just as any Muslim, Jew, Hindu, etc. Why should the Christian display be the only view promoted?
Pitman, NJ – The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) placed a banner saying “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia” that was hung between a privately-owned building and a privately-owned utility pole in the heart of the business district. Most of us. Christian and otherwise, still keep many of the Saturnalia traditions, with very little deviation.
“We’d much prefer that our seat of government be free from religion — and irreligion,” says Dan Barker, FFRF Co-President. “The rotunda is getting very cluttered. But if a devotional nativity display is allowed, there must be ‘room at the inn’ for all points of view, including irreverence and free thought.” he adds. Barker spent much of his life as a Christian preacher before eventually learning “that what I was preaching was not true”. He says that his group is not trying to “kill” Christmas, and points out that many of its members still celebrate the holiday. “We still have a tree; we just don’t put an angel on the top,” he said. “We believe Christians stole the holiday from the pagans. It is the winter solstice.” He has a point……or two!
But it’s not just the FFRF that Christians point to as the soldiers of this so-called “war”. Other complaints involve many different groups, all of whom are simply fighting for inclusion and adherence to legal guidelines.
Little Rock, AR – The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers put up its “Winter Solstice” display on the state capitol grounds for the fourth year in a row .
One Christian reporter remarked: “On NBC’s “Today” show, the network’s chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman disparaged the religious aspect of Christmas during a panel discussion. A co-panelist asserted that she focused on the religious meaning of Christmas. Snyderman responded, “I don’t like the religion part. I think religion is what mucks the whole thing up.”” The reporter seemed to take her words regarding her belief quite personally. Is she not supposed to express her own beliefs? It was a panel discussion!
Lincoln, NE – A flashing message reminding passersby to “Remember the Reason for the Season” was removed from the electronic sign at Lincoln Southeast High School. Principal Patrick Hunter-Pirtle commented: “It shouldn’t have been up there. That phrase is associated with Christianity. We have Jewish students here, and we have Muslim students here. I don’t want anybody to feel like we’re favoring a religion. I don’t want to exclude anyone, and we work hard at that.”
New York, NY – “American Atheists attacked Christians with a giant billboard in New York’s Times Square. The message read: “Keep the merry! Dump the myth!” The billboard also depicted Santa as well as Jesus with a Crown of Thorns on the Cross.” The group American Atheists became a big target of Christians when it brought its billboards to the southern Bible Belt states. Huge billboards showed a impish young girl writing a letter to Santa Claus: “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I’m too old for fairy tales,” she wrote. On the next billboard, Father Christmas replied: “Go ahead and skip church!” Santa urges on one billboard: “Just be good for goodness’ sakes. Happy Holidays!” These sound like messages enforcing positive representations of secular celebrations, not “hate-filled” messages against any particular religion.
On only a very few occasions, Christian displays have been illegally banned. In 2010, the Catholic League protested the display of the menorah, a religious symbol, and the banning of a nativity scene, also a religious symbol, at the St. George Staten Island Ferry Terminal and in Boca Raton, Florida. The next year, the city council chose to ban all displays. This is almost a totally Jewish community. The Christians simply waged their battle in the wrong neighborhood!
For the most part, all of these instances have been due to intolerance of religious beliefs …by the very group claiming to be the victims of a “war” on their beliefs. To me, it seems like a war on “forcing those beliefs down the throats of non-believers”. Clearly, the law is not supporting Christian complaints, nor should it in these cases. Can we really say that the “war” on Christmas is coming from some Christian groups’ insistence on breaking the laws governing separation of church and state? Do Christians not see that concept as fundamental to our democracy, and to a government that is supposed to represent all people regardless of religious beliefs? Or is the “war” being fought in another way?
Christian media sites also point to “battle” actions by advertisers and retail establishments who are trying to “erase Christmas from the holiday season”. Here’s a look at the complaints listed on Christian media sites regarding the “War on Christmas” by retailers:
WalMart, in Nov 2005, began a policy of “inclusion” of saying “Happy Holidays” when greeting customers, in order to include other holidays as well as Christmas. This angered the Catholic League, who launched a boycott of the chain.
The American Family Association created a petition calling for a national boycott of Target Stores in 2006 claiming they had banned employees from saying “Merry Christmas”. They sent out a massive email making these claims. But it was not true. Employees had always been instructed to use their own discretion in dealing with customers and holiday greetings, which was verified by Snopes.com on December 2, 2005. However, Target’s in-store printed signage indicated that Target wanted to transition into a more inclusive holiday greeting and recognition system due to the growing number of non-Christians customers who celebrated some form of holiday at the end of the year. Most suppliers had already changed their packaging to reflect the more inclusive terms, replacing the word “Christmas” with the word “Holiday”. Again, Christians called for a boycott.
In 2007, Lowe’s used the term “Family trees” in their holiday ads rather than “Christmas trees”, since almost all traditions these days incorporate a tree in their holiday celebrations. Another effort to be inclusive and generic, was seen by the Christian groups as an insult. Lowe’s claimed it was an error in that particular ad, and that they often reference “Christmas” in their holiday selection. Snopes.com investigation found this to be true.
Dawn Bryant, a spokeswoman at Best Buy Co. Inc., says their advertising will not be using the term “Merry Christmas”. “We are going to continue to use the term holiday because there are several holidays throughout that time period, and we certainly need to be respectful of all of them,” Bryant said. Of course Christians convinced by erroneous emails that there indeed was a war on Christmas once again complained about the inclusive terms. Best Buy’s response: “Thank you for sharing your thoughts about including Christmas in our marketing efforts. We recognize that several holidays are celebrated during the months of November and December. Many people exchange gifts in celebration of one or more of these holidays. In order to be respectful of all our customers (and employees) who celebrate different holidays throughout the season, we are choosing to use “Happy Holidays” as the primary greeting in our holiday campaign.”
There are certainly groups who take offense to any religious ideal, but some Christians themselves seem to be the least tolerant of all, by maintaining that the only religious ideal that should be allowed in public view is their own!
Most of us, regardless of belief, are following our individual paths by walking down the middle of the road. We believe in live and let live as long as no one is forced or harmed. As an atheist, I myself celebrate the holidays in my home devoid of any religious accoutrements, and in the oldest traditions of the Yule season. When someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I reciprocate with the same. If I know the other persons religious belief, I might add “and Happy (whatever)”. When I wish others a happy holiday, I may use several different greetings. I find other cultures greetings to be as profound as our own. None insult me, or cause me the slightest angst. I also enjoy Christmas parades and pageants, sometimes an elaborate midnight mass at a local Catholic church, or other religion’s celebrations. I prefer secular carols, movies and entertainment, but am not offended when I hear a chorus of “What Child is This”, a Christian version of the Druid carol, “Greensleeves”. I love to hear Silent Night sung in Spanish…it’s beautiful. I welcome Christians into our 12,000+ year old holiday, which I see as a unification of all mankind in the spirit of Compassion, Peace and Joy. If Christians want to call our holiday something else, or adopt our rituals as their own, that’s OK with me. But don’t then try to exclude me from my own traditions because Christians have adopted them.
As far as displays on government or public lands, I can understand the limitations that would come from granting every group equal access. But because one of my favorite pastimes during the holidays is to venture out to view the various Christmas displays, I would advocate a solution that I actually saw in practice in the small town of Ponca City, Oklahoma. The city supplies transportation and storage, and space in a city park for displays. It is open to all who apply for a permit, as long as the display is family oriented. Volunteers from many groups purchase or build the displays and set them up. They man the donation stations at the exit gate, that pays for the electricity used. There are miles of winding roads filled with displays of every kind imaginable. Religious and secular are included. Hot chocolate and roasted marshmallows are always provided, as are hay-wagon rides for those who wish to enjoy the open air and caroling. This small town, of only several thousand people, had a more magnificent display than that of Disney World Florida. And I have seen both
Most of the Christians I know personally would approve. Most include the nativity story in their own version of Saturnalia. They call their holiday “Christmas”, though little of their celebration is earmarked specifically for worship of their deity. They believe in inclusion for all at a time when almost every tradition has it’s own version of year end holiday. They are not offended by various holiday greetings that don’t mention the word “Christmas”. It’s the intention and thought that counts. They realize that the world does not revolve around their own personal beliefs, and accept that reality, even if they have visions of converting the masses of non-believers.
The “War” seems to exist for the extremists, and the most intolerant, or those who cannot accept our secular laws. For these Christians, I say:
“Lay down your arms. There is no war on Christmas except the one you are waging against all others. Accept our diversity, and learn to enjoy the holidays without trying to oppress believers of other traditions. You may find you enjoy learning about our differences and our similarities. After all, if your myths are true, WE are also children of your gods. So with that in mind, I wish You: Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad and Happy Holidays. May Santa be kind to you and I hope you find the Peace and Joy that should be a part of your own holiday as well.”