The 'War on Christmas' and other myths: Returning to a tabloid near you

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The annual refrain that Christmas is being destroyed is a right-wing cultural tactic to create the impression of a conspiracy out there to change society as we know it, writes Stephen Keim.

BEFORE I sat down to write this piece, I had the thought that I would have to remind my readers of the “they are killing Christmas” myth.

The story that “they” are killing Christmas has been a recurring attack line in the culture wars by the religious right and other extreme conservatives over many years.

Unsurprisingly, the latest rendition emerges each year in the days and weeks before Christmas.

Then came Jimmy Bakker, the televangelist who resigned from his religious empire after admitting that he had had extramarital sex with a 21-year-old Church secretary and, subsequently, served four years imprisonment for a $158 million fraud. Bakker was on TV recently, alleging that “merry Christmas” had been banned by the U.S. Government a few years ago and that it was a fight back by Christians that forced the Government to change the law back. It was all false, of course.

Last year, the Daily Telegraph chastised 'bonkers bureaucrats' for 'trying to kill Christmas' because signs at The Rocks in Sydney carried the words “very merry” without the accompanying word, “Christmas”. Politician Fred Nile was said to be livid about attempts to "kill" Christmas.

The annual recycling of accusations that Christmas is being subverted, destroyed or killed is an example of the tactics used by rightwing cultural warriors to give the impression that there is a conspiracy out there to change society as we know it while, at the same time, seeking to claim cultural orthodoxy for values and views close to their rightwing religious hearts, but which may not be as universal and orthodox as they claim.

The tactic is clever, if deceitful. First, one creates a straw enemy – in this case, the killers of Christmas/destroyers of society – who can be and is ruthlessly attacked. Then, anyone who resists the outlandish claim that Christmas is being killed is just as ruthlessly condemned as having outed themselves as the "villains" who are destroying our society.

The tactic has the advantage of defining the terms of the discussion to the advantage of those claiming to defend Christmas and society from destruction. Any challenger may be portrayed as, indeed, trying to defend the killing of Christmas and their arguments can be derided without ever being met.

For example, the Daily Telegraph article and Fred Nile would have had a much harder argument if they had run with the argument that we need more signs saying “Merry Christmas”. This is because – despite the very large number of signs carrying those words, not to mention the non-stop playing of 'Silent Night' and the 'Feast of Stephen' on store loudspeakers – you can never have enough mentions of Christmas and what a great religious celebration it is. People might just come back and say, “enough Christmas, it's enough!”, or “not all of us are that religious” and the argument would have proceeded on an approximation of a level playing field.

If you are a right-wing cultural warrior, in this case, a Christmas warrior, you eschew the very idea of a level playing field for any discussion in which you take part. So you go with the myth that Christmas is under savage attack and, in the absence of a major intervention, society as we know it and all the values we hold dear will go under.

Having said all that, I am willing to walk into the Christmas warrior trap. I will explain why it is neither subversive nor treasonable for councils, schools, public servants or individuals to eschew the use of Christmassy language in certain situations. And I am prepared to debate the myth that Christmas is on the point of being strangled.

First, it is not compulsory to say: “Happy Christmas”. Neither should it be since free speech and freedom of religion are two of our human rights recognised by the international human rights instruments which Australia has voluntarily bound itself to uphold. Even conservative Christmas warriors find it convenient, at times, to endorse both free speech and freedom of religion.

Second, Christmas gets a lot of airplay. In mid-November, I walked through a country town in south-west Western Australia. The front windows of the shops I went past had Christmas greetings stencilled on to their doorways. As mentioned above, after Father’s Day, 'Silent Night' is always being played in stores. Every television, radio station and newspaper has advertisements and editorial trumpeting Christmas themes, non-stop, in the days and weeks before Christmas. 

Third – and we are getting to an important part – not everyone in Australia is a signed up celebrator of the birthing event at Bethlehem. The figures suggest that 52 per cent of Australians are signed up. That leaves a sizeable group who are not.

So, if a teacher, or a public servant, or a corporation, or a street decoration designer, or a sender of greeting cards, or a politician – or, indeed, anyone – decides that they will communicate a message in the middle of December that they feel is more inclusive, it’s no big deal.

Indeed, teachers are in a very good position to judge such things. By the time that arithmetic and writing have given way to preparing cards and presents for the family, the teacher has a good feel for the family backgrounds and belief systems of the children in their class. So, if a teacher decides that it is better to do the run into Christmas a little differently and more inclusively, then I would usually prefer the judgement of that teacher to any Christmas warrior who wants to cry wolf about Christmas being murdered.

There is a fourth and even more fundamental point. If one person decides that saying “Merry Christmas” – whether on a card. or a street sign, or on TV, or in person – is not for them, then Christmas is still alive and healthy. If 40 per cent of the population decide to celebrate the 25th day of December, differently, Christmas is still alive and kicking among the other 60 per cent. And, if Christmas is celebrated as Christmas by only one person, it is still alive in the heart of that person. The point is that Christmas will live or die on its own merits. The annual accusations that Christmas is being killed show a strange kind of defensiveness.

It seems to reflect either a fear that Christmas is already irrelevant, or, perhaps, a desire to impose one’s own views on others who, for their own reasons, no longer, feel that the words have to be said, at least, in certain public contexts.

Read Part Two of The 'War on Christmas' myth: 'Australia is a Christian country'

You can follow Stephen Keim on Twitter @StephenKeim1.

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