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 administration’s 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.
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 O’Reilly, who claimed in 2004 that Christmas was “under siege” by “secular progressives.” It was triggered when the department store Macy’s decided not to greet customers with “Merry Christmas” but to wish them “Happy Holidays” instead.
O’Reilly 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."
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.”
In November 2015, Trump made headlines by proposing a boycott of Starbucks as punishment for manufacturing a red and white holiday cup that wasn’t explicitly Christmassy enough, promising a booing audience: “If I become president, we’re 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. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wheeling, West Virginia, which follows a century-old tradition of helping families who can’t 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 that’s 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 Israel’s 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 wasn’t 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 Trump’s 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 father’s “War on Christmas” rhetoric.
For those who would chalk up Ivanka’s 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 Trump’s 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 crèche 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 Trump’s 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 isn’t 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 Trump’s 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.
It’s 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 don’t care much how it’s 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 Trump’s 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 don’t celebrate it doesn’t mean that we’re not happy to wish you a very Merry Christmas also.”