A War on Christmas Story: How Fox News built the dumbest part of America's culture war
Propaganda works, and right-wing media have it down to an art form
On December 3, 2004, Fox News’ now-defunct The O’Reilly Factor debuted a recurring segment called “Christmas Under Siege.” Though Christmas was not and has never been “under siege” in any meaningful way, disgraced former host Bill O’Reilly and Fox were set on pushing this victimization narrative, laying the groundwork for what became known as the “War on Christmas.” In the 15 years since, onlookers watched the very concept of objective reality fracture along political lines. Consumers of conservative media drifted ever deeper into a world where a school’s nonexistent ban on red and green clothing became national news and paranoid delusions were freely floated about a future in which people may be prohibited from displaying Christmas decorations.
For 15 years, cable news Don Quixotes have battled these windmills, rejoicing in their victories and basking in their acts of bravery while warning their audiences to remain vigilant. Imaginary culture war issues like the War on Christmas make for good politics, as the people arguing that these are real issues can at any time simply dust off their hands, declare victory, and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Like Lisa Simpson and her tiger-repelling rock, the protectors of Christmas are simply saving the holiday from nonexistent threats.
Deep down, they must know that there’s no actual “war” on Christmas, but it makes for good politics. Rather than having to address issues actually facing Americans -- such as health care, the economy, and climate change -- the fake battles in the fake War on Christmas give right-wing media a convenient way to manufacture divisions between the left and the right. The bombardment of misinformation playing up imaginary (or wildly overblown) examples of political correctness run amok are intended to scare and create a seeming sense of partisanship even on issues that are agreed upon nearly universally.
Of the many impacts of the War on Christmas, Donald Trump’s decision to run for president seems the most consequential.
In a 2016 interview, Eric Trump explained why his father ran for president (emphasis added):
He opens up the paper each morning and sees our nation’s leaders giving a hundred billion dollars to Iran, or he opens the paper and some new school district has just eliminated the ability for its students to say the Pledge of Allegiance, or some fire department in some town is ordered by the mayor to no longer fly the American flag on the back of a fire truck. Or, he sees the tree on the White House lawn has been renamed “holiday tree” instead of “Christmas tree.” I could go on and on for hours. Those are the very things that made my father run, and those are the very things he cares about.
Each of those claims is dubious at best, but the idea that the White House Christmas tree was renamed the “holiday tree” is flat-out false.
Claims that Christmas traditions are being threatened date back nearly 100 years, and it’s remarkable how little the arguments have changed.
In 1921, industrialist and notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford published a piece decrying the secularization of Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter:
Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth. Easter they will have the same difficulty in finding Easter cards that contain any suggestion that Easter commemorates a certain event. There will be rabbits and eggs and spring flowers, but a hint of the Resurrection will be hard to find.
Ford’s sentiment is quite similar to that of O’Reilly in 2004:
All over the country, Christmas is taking flak. In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the holiday tree and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores, [that's] Macy's, have done away with the Christmas greeting, “Merry Christmas.”
And to the claims in this piece from conservative columnist Jay Nordlinger in 2010:
Some have said, “You just can't find cards that say ‘Merry Christmas.’ It gets harder and harder.” I know. Kind of like trying to find products not made in China (for who's to say whether they come from laogai, the gulag?). I gave up on the China front long ago. Shameful, I know. But have you ever tried to buy an umbrella not made in China? Also, globalization has done wonders for the average Chinese, gulag or no gulag. Kind of a thorny, upsetting issue.
I gave up on the “Merry Christmas” front too, where cards are concerned. I just get a pretty card that says “Season’s Greetings” or “Whass Happenin' on the Holidays?” or whatever. Life's too short to hunt down “Merry Christmas.”
While O’Reilly’s frustrations were aired during an episode of The O’Reilly Factor and Nordlinger’s were published in the National Review, Ford’s came in the second volume of a collection titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, hammering home what the War on Christmas was actually about for Ford: antisemitism and Christian supremacy.
In 1959, the right-wing John Birch Society published a pamphlet titled There Goes Christmas?! in which its authors argued that the United Nations and communists were trying to “take Christ out of Christmas.” In 2000, white nationalist blog VDare published what’s thought to be the first online mention of the “War Against Christmas,” warning that Amazon’s use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” in an email was symbolic of “the struggle to abolish America.”
The out-groups supposedly responsible for attacking Christian traditions may have changed over the years, but from Ford to Fox, the backbone of the War on Christmas conspiracy theory has always been that of Christian nationalism.
A brief history of right-wing media’s War on Christmas:
With a series of lies, half-truths, and distortions, Fox News and other right-wing media figures have kept the Christmas culture war at the forefront of American politics for 15 years, maintaining a cache of examples they can pull from when they need to distract from an unfavorable news cycle. These stories are almost always framed around the idea that political correctness has gone too far and treat the issues brought up as though they are a development of recent decades.
2004: O’Reilly and other right-wing pundits falsely claim that a Washington grade school “banned” a production of A Christmas Carol. Fox Business host Lou Dobbs (then with CNN) claims that the words “Happy Holidays” “exclud[e] everyone who is celebrating Christmas.” Christian Broadcasting Network founder and host Pat Robertson tells people who don’t like Christmas to go to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Sudan. Conservative commentators attack Target for “banning” the Salvation Army from its stores when in fact the store was just enforcing existing policy. Then-MSNBC analyst Pat Buchanan claims that minor controversies around parade names or store greetings amount to “hate crimes against Christianity.”
2005: O’Reilly promises to “use all the power” he has “on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people” who “diminish and denigrate the [Christmas] holiday.” He baselessly suggests that former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry would have “abolished” Christmas as a federal holiday had he won the 2004 election, replacing it with “winter solstice or something.” He declares “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” offensive to Christians before taking the exact opposite position next month, saying, “‘Happy Holidays’ is fine. Just don't ban ‘Merry Christmas.’” O’Reilly compares Catholic leaders’ silence over the War on Christmas to the church’s handling of its pedophilia scandal. He bizarrely claims that Martin Luther King, Jr. “would be appalled” by “the attacks on Christmas.” He also pushes Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, claiming that he’d be an ally in the fight to protect Christmas. The Fox host falsely claims that the U.S. Postal Service no longer offers stamps with a “spiritual” theme.
2006: In January, O’Reilly misleadingly claims that a Wisconsin elementary school changed the lyrics to “Silent Night” to be more politically correct during a 2005 Christmas performance. (The lyrics were from a Christmas play about a lonely tree lamenting its state to the tune of “Silent Night.”) O’Reilly claims that retailers Best Buy and Crate & Barrel are “still ordering their people not to say ‘Merry Christmas’” under threat of being fired even though neither store had any such policy. Conservative radio host Bob Newman misleadingly claims that the American Civil Liberties Union was suing a Tennessee school over Christmas carols.
2009: Fox News plays up a fabricated controversy focused on the inclusion of three controversial ornaments on the Christmas tree in the White House’s Blue Room, when in fact those three ornaments -- out of 800 on the tree -- had been among hundreds donated by local organizations. Anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller says that the Senate holding a vote on Christmas Eve is “an act of treason and blasphemy.” Fox’s “straight news” hosts misrepresent a Boston school’s policy prohibiting the sale of religious items in its gift shop as proof of the War on Christmas.
2010: Fox & Friends claims that the city of Tulsa’s decision to host a “holiday parade” instead of a “Christmas parade” is a “topic of national controversy.” Fox host Sean Hannity demands “tolerance” from his Jewish guest after talking about this topic. Fox & Friends pushes a bogus story about a central Florida school banning “traditional Christmas colors.” National Review writer Jay Nordlinger lies about a lack of Christmas greeting cards. Fox’s website accuses the NBA of attacking Christmas by scheduling games on the holiday, seemingly oblivious to this long-standing tradition. Fox claims that it’s anti-Christmas for lawmakers to work during the final weeks of December.
2011: Then-Fox host Gretchen Carlson suggests that debate moderators ask 2012 presidential candidates “how important would it be for you to address the political correctness in our society” including the war on Christmas and warns, “Maybe Christmas won’t be a federal holiday coming up if it continues down this path.” Carlson speculates that it may soon be illegal for her to display Christmas decorations in her home. Hannity and other conservatives criticize the Obamas for having too many Christmas decorations. Fox contributor Tammy Bruce accuses Obama of “pandering to Muslims” and showing “contempt for Christianity” by implementing a “Christmas tree tax,” which actually originated through an industry-led program under the Bush administration and was levied to establish a marketing campaign promoting the sale of fresh Christmas trees. Then-Fox host Eric Bolling implies Obama favors Islam over Christianity while a sign in the background says “Obama’s War on Christmas.” O’Reilly devotes more time to the War on Christmas than he does to actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Right-wing media rage that a child made an ornament saying “I love President Obama” for an unofficial Capitol Christmas Tree that the Obama administration had zero involvement with. Dobbs and Tony Perkins say Rhode Island’s “holiday tree” is an assault on religion. Then-Fox host Alisyn Camerota promotes the War on Christmas narrative by falsely claiming that “you can’t call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree in Rhode Island.” An article on Fox Nation declares, “We’re Winning the War on Christmas.”
2012: Fox & Friends interviews a professional “Santa” about Christmas being under attack. O’Reilly agrees with a guest who says that the War on Christmas is the left’s attempt to advance abortion and gay rights “because Christianity is against those things.” O’Reilly again devotes more time to the War on Christmas than he does to actual wars. Frequent Fox guest Ben Stein claims that people who don’t like Christmas are mentally ill.
2013: O’Reilly again says “secular progressives” want to ban Christmas to achieve policy goals including “unfettered abortion” and gay marriage. O’Reilly diagnoses the U.S. with “‘Happy Holidays’ syndrome.” Then-Fox host Megyn Kelly tells her audience that Jesus and Santa are both white, and O’Reilly backs her on his show. Fox’s Tucker Carlson warns during a “War on Christmas” segment that not believing in God leads to “killing a ton of people.” O’Reilly declares victory in the war. Radio host Rush Limbaugh baselessly says that the left “would totally eliminate” Christmas if given the opportunity. During the Veterans Day episode of his show, Hannity devotes twice as much time to the War on Christmas as to veterans of actual wars.
2014: O’Reilly invites a psychotherapist on The O’Reilly Factor to diagnose people who are supposedly waging a war on Christmas. After a school district opts to not list religious holidays on its school calendar rather than adding two major Muslim holidays, O’Reilly cites the decision as evidence that people are “wip[ing] out all our traditions” as part of a War on Christmas. O’Reilly once again declares victory. Fox & Friends hypes an op-ed written by actor Chuck Norris wrongly claiming that Obama hadn’t spoken out about his Christian faith, using as evidence the fact that Obama didn’t weigh in on a school district’s decision to remove all religious holidays from its calendar.
2015: Fox & Friends hypes the War on Christmas with a story about a town’s decision to continue displaying a nativity scene on public property. Then-Fox analyst Peter Johnson Jr. asks if the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attack is proof of a “literal war on Christmas.” Bolling falsely claims that a New York City school “banned parents and teachers from explicitly mentioning Christmas or Santa Claus at school functions.” Fox & Friends First claims Starbucks is trying to “bah humbug Christmas” by going with a more minimal red design, rather than Christmas images, for its annual holiday cup. Hannity guest Todd Starnes claims, “This year, the war on Christmas has really been waged on college and university campuses.” O’Reilly guest Dennis Miller says that an Ohio man’s zombie nativity display is proof that “it’s open season” on Christians.
2016: Fox & Friends Weekend, along with Starnes and Breitbart, report on the cancellation of one school’s production of A Christrmas Carol, causing the family at the center of the controversy to leave town temporarily for fear of doxxing.
2017: Dobbs says that thanks to Trump, he is “seeing far more in the way of Christmas displays, Christmas lights ... and so much obvious joy.” After the Metro rejected an ad from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., because it depicted a religious scene, Fox & Friends claims, “The war on Christmas is gaining speed.”
2018: Fox & Friends guest Mike Slater laments people “abusing freedoms here” instead of “worshipping God” during a War on Christmas segment. On her radio show, Ingraham obsesses over a made-up story about people on the left wanting to “ban” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer based on a video HuffPost published jokingly calling the 1964 Christmas film “the worst.” Fox News reports on the video as though it is a sincere call to ban the film and runs multiple stories about it online. Fox and a number of other right-wing media outlets run stories about a supposed push by some to make Santa Claus “gender-neutral,” based on an extremely dubious and leading poll by a graphic design company. Fox contributor Tammy Bruce and Tucker Carlson commiserate over a decision by a coffee shop in the Scottish Parliament building to no longer call its gingerbread cookies “gingerbread men.”
2019: The season began early with the Fox News invention of a new seasonal war, this time on Thanksgiving. But it's not as though there weren't Christmas grievances to air. Fox Business host Trish Regan became irate over the fact that Starbucks' annual holiday cups say “Merry Coffee” instead of “Merry Christmas,” a move she was convinced had been driven by political correctness. In an interview with Jeanine Pirro, Lara Trump celebrated the ability to “say 'Merry Christmas' again.”
For 15 years, right-wing media have been able to convince people of a war that has simply never existed. There’s a deeper lesson here.
Every so often, a prominent mainstream columnist will publish an op-ed making the case for people on the left to be less concerned with cultural issues. The argument goes, for example, that Democrats were too worried about trans rights in 2016, and that cost them the election. Or perhaps a columnist will write that Black Lives Matter is too divisive. The truth, however, is that people on the right seem particularly dedicated to latching onto culture war topics for electoral gain.
Following the 2016 election, there were a number of articles blaming the Democrats’ loss on an obsession with “identity politics.” It was Democrats who were supposedly obsessed with trans people and bathrooms; it was Democrats who sunk too much time, money, and energy into protecting abortion rights. In reality, what interest Democrats did have in these issues (which hardly made up a significant portion of their platform or campaign strategy) came in response to things Republican politicians did to restrict trans and reproductive rights. But there’s no real action that the War on Christmas is responding to -- it’s just a series of minor, trumped-up stories. In reality, this supposed “war” lives entirely in the minds of the people pushing the narrative. Its staying power and success have served as the blueprint for related “wars” on Easter and Thanksgiving.
The War on Christmas is the backdrop for a world in which “political correctness” will be forever running amok, the left’s goal will always be to “destroy everything that is wholesome in our country and in our Judeo-Christian civilization,” and Democrats will be stuck in a perpetual state of trying to ban your favorite hobbies and foods. Of course, none of this is true. The slightest resistance to right-wing culture creep will always be framed as a direct assault on their way of life, even if that resistance is just a defense of the status quo. What, if anything, has the left learned after 15 years?