Analysis

How Donald Trump Lost the 'War on Christmas'

During his presidential election campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed to Make Christmas Merry Again. But the reality has proved different to all his Yuletide rhetoric

U.S. President Donald Trump pointing to a large 'Merry Christmas' card onstage in St. Louis, Missouri, November 29, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump has long positioned himself as a front-line soldier in the so-called War on Christmas, which made non-Christians justifiably nervous as they anticipated his administrations first holiday season as a religiously charged, exclusionary and divisive affair.

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Indeed, days before the holiday, a pro-Trump video featuring a little blonde girl lisping Thank you, President Trump, for letting us say Merry Christmas again, as if the words had somehow been previously banned or outlawed.

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And then on Christmas Eve, Trump tweeted that he was "proud" to have beaten back what he called an "assault" on the holiday.

The War on Christmas catchphrase was coined by former Fox News host Bill OReilly, who claimed in 2004 that Christmas was under siege by secular progressives. It was triggered when the department store Macys decided not to greet customers with Merry Christmas but to wish them Happy Holidays instead.

OReilly seized on that as an example of an organized effort to eliminate Christian religious symbols in American public life. He and other right-wing commentators were following in the footsteps of a tradition dating back to the 1950s and the far-right John Birch Society, which claimed a communist conspiracy was hell-bent on taking the Christ out of Christmas, also blaming "fantatics" at the UN for trying to "poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda."

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Even before entering politics, Trump declared that so-called political correctness in the name of inclusivity and separation of church and state had gone too far. In 2011, Trump went as far as to falsely accuse then-President Barack Obama of failing to send Christmas greetings, while remembering to mark the African festival of Kwanzaa.

In part of his effort to rally evangelical Christians to his camp, Trump made the issue a running theme during  his 2016 presidential election campaign, repeatedly promising at his rallies that he would bring back the phrase Merry Christmas.

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In November 2015, Trump made headlines by proposing a boycott of Starbucks as punishment for manufacturing a red and white holiday cup that wasnt explicitly Christmassy enough, promising a booing audience: If I become president, were all going to be saying Merry Christmas again. That I can tell you.

In his 2016 post-election victory lap around the country, his travels were officially dubbed the Merry Christmas USA 2016 Victory Tour. A year later, at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, Merry Christmas was front and center once again.

But despite all the hoopla, there has been little explicitly Christian content crossing the church-state line in the Trump era that could truly upset non-Christians.

There were a few warning signs earlier this month, though. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of evangelical leader and former Gov. Mike Huckabee, invoked Christian belief during her briefing on December 7, with a tale designed to shine a spotlight on seasonal generosity. She related the story of St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Wheeling, West Virginia, which follows a century-old tradition of helping families who cant afford Christmas toys for their children. While Sanders story itself did not contain religious content or exclude non-Christians, the message she attached to it was undeniably sectarian. She said that such stories are important because they remind us what this season is all about and thats the greatest gift of all, that a savior was born.

Sanders message raised eyebrows and comment on social media.

Another small but significant sign of change was spotted by former White House aide and former ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro, who pointed out that the proclamation declaring Jerusalem to be Israels capital signed by Trump had been worded to state that the event was taking place on this sixth day of December, in the year of our Lord two thousand seventeen.

Shapiro noted on Twitter that during his years in the Obama White House, he had worked hard (with mixed success) to get that standard formulation out of White House proclamations aimed at the Jewish community. He was referring to the standard language for presidential proclamations, which explicitly state the number of years since the birth of Jesus Christ, marking the start of the Gregorian calendar.

But as the weeks passed and Christmas neared, there wasnt much to justify concerns that the Trump White House would be transformed into an overtly Christian observance, excluding other religious traditions.

True, the Trump Hanukkah party was smaller, more low-key and more partisan than past celebrations in the Bush and Obama White Houses. But the tradition of holding a Hanukkah celebration only began during the second Bush administration, so Trump presumably could have gotten away with eliminating it – though that might not have sat well with daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Indeed, Ivanka Trumps Twitter feed was one of the clearest indicators that the return to Merry Christmas message had not penetrated the culture very deeply.

She seemed to quite deliberately choose to wish her five million Twitter followers Happy Holidays! with no mention of the C-word, in what some viewed as outright defiance of her fathers War on Christmas rhetoric.

For those who would chalk up Ivankas Christmas-less greeting to the fact she is Jewish, there was further evidence of the cultural zeitgeist with the fact her younger brother Eric also stayed ecumenical in wishing the best from Trump Winery.

Even Melania Trumps much publicized – and much maligned – choices for decorating the White House felt more pagan than overtly Christian, with many white branches and relatively few representations of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Yes, there was a crche display in the White House, but there had been one throughout the Obama administration, despite false rumors to the contrary.

All of this demonstrates the fact that while Trumps enthusiastic crusade against what he characterizes as a nefarious anti-Merry Christmas and pro-Happy Holidays conspiracy may play well with his base, his obsession with the issue isnt at all reflective of mainstream America.

That feeling is born out with a newly released Pew Research Center survey, which found that far fewer Americans care about being explicitly wished a Merry Christmas than they had in the past.

The Pew poll reported: A rising share of Americans say they do not have a preference about how they are greeted in stores during the holiday season, while a declining percentage prefer to have stores greet them with Merry Christmas.

According to the survey, Americans were previously split down the middle when it came to expressing a preference for Merry Christmas over an alternative greeting when they were asked about it more than a decade ago and again in 2012.

This year, more than half of the U.S. public surveyed, 52 percent, told pollsters that a business choice of holiday greeting did not matter to them, while just a third – 32 percent – said they preferred that stores and businesses greet customers with Merry Christmas during the holidays.

Overall, the Pew survey pointed to the fact that Trumps election does not reflect a surge in Christian religiosity in America. In fact, it found the religious aspects of Christmas were markedly declining.

The number of Americans who believe that the biblical account of the birth of Jesus depicts actual events is shrinking, it said, and a declining majority says religious displays such as nativity scenes should be allowed on government property.

Its nothing new for Trump to appeal to his core base, and presumably his War on Christmas obsession shores up his status with evangelicals – even as it flies in the face of the sentiments of the majority of Americans, who seem happy to celebrate any holiday and dont care much how its expressed. For many, the politicization of what is supposed to be a greeting of seasonal cheer is simply confusing.

In a blow to the War on Christmas theory from one of Trumps least favorite religious minorities, comedian Feraz Ozel compiled video of Muslim-American families wishing their countrymen a Merry Christmas in order to demonstrate that non-Christians were just fine with the phrase.

Plenty of Muslims and brown folks from different religions are still happy to wish you a Merry Christmas if the time is right, Ozel said. Just because some people say Happy Holidays to people who dont celebrate it doesnt mean that were not happy to wish you a very Merry Christmas also.