When is a war on Christmas not a war on Christmas? When Christmas ads start popping up on TV at the beginning of November

November 15, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 15, 2013

Former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is out with a new book. It’s called Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, and by all accounts it inveighs against the liberals, atheists, seculars and humanists who are endangering the celebration of the birth of Christ.

There are a few conservative tropes that make me roll my eyes in disbelief. The “war on Christmas” bromide seems to me the flimsiest of them all.

Now, the United States is a big nation with lots of foolishness. Christopher Moraff of Philadelphia magazine includes in his largely dismissive piece about Palin’s book this acknowledgment that “determined secularists are not completely innocent of some pretty outrageous attempts to scrub even the most innocuous faith-based displays from the public square”:

Just last year administrators at a middle school in California canceled a production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a play that has very little to do with the Christian holiday — because they thought it might offend Jewish students celebrating Hanukkah. A backlash forced the school’s hand, but not before an unsuccessful attempt to lobby the play’s publisher for a change of title. The year before, at another school in California, teachers were prohibited from displaying poinsettias in their classrooms; and Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas banned students from exchanging Christmas gifts or cards.

Even Philadelphia has played a cameo role in the Christmas kerfuffle. Back in 2010, the annual holiday flea market held outside City Hall (now in Love Park) was forced to temporarily remove the word “Christmas” from its name in response to complaints from “concerned” citizens. The name change only lasted a few days before Mayor Nutter intervened and re-inaugurated “Christmas Village.”

Rest assured, Christians aren’t the only ones under the gun. In 2011, a 16-year-old New Jersey boy was given the thankless task by his school of compiling a playlist for a holiday breakfast without any songs alluding to Christmas or Hanukkah. (Amazingly the student was able to find nine songs that met the criteria.) And a school in Greendale, Wisconsin, faced criticism after pulling a Hindu song popularized by Gandhi from its holiday concert.

There are valid reasons for trying to limit the influence that Christmas has on public life — especially in America’s most public institutions, its government and its government-run schools. But banning students from exchanging Christmas gifts or cards? That simply sounds ridiculous. Banning poinsettias manages to be even more ludicrous.

Roughly three-quarters of Americans are Christians, which should be everyone’s first sign that the war on Christmas is more chimerical than real. The next sign should be the phenomenon that pundit Gregg Easterbrook calls Christmas creep.

Easterbrook used to make Christmas creep a regular feature of his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column; it evidently was retired in 2011, but it’s still relevant. Here’s what Easterbrook wrote in December of that year:

Not long ago, Christmas creep occurred on any observations or decorations before Thanksgiving. Now, holding off on Christmas kitsch until Halloween ends is viewed as incredible restraint.

Today is Nov. 15. I’ve noticed, with some dismay, numerous Christmas-themed commercials over the past several days. On Nov. 9, I noticed a Noel-oriented television ad from Home Depot. The next day, I saw Santa Claus hawking Lincolns in a TV commercial. The Starbucks I was in on Nov. 11 was putting up a few Christmas displays. That evening, Infiniti ran a TV ad with Christmas trees. There was also a Radio Shack “tech the halls” commercial with a Christmas carol.

Today, I went into a Target with a parent. We wanted to get gift cards for the daughters of friends. The girls in question have one Jewish and one Christian parent; the older child has been bat-mitzvahed, and the younger one will be soon. The gift cards were to be Chanukah presents.

But we ran into a problem. Target had plenty of store gift cards. Unfortunately, all of them were holiday-themed. And when I say “holiday-themed,” I don’t mean they depicted icons of Kwanzaa or Chanukah. One of the cards said “Merry Christmas.” One had a photograph of a dog with a Target bull’s-eye logo circling one of its eyes; the dog was wearing fake reindeer antlers and a jingle-belled collar. There was a card shaped like a snowman. Another card had three skiing penguins. Yet another depicted a gingerbread man in a gingerbread house; the brown structure featured red, white and green highlights. There were also two cards featuring Santa Claus. Oh, yes: And there was a silvery card showing a blue snowflake and another that said “Season’s Greetings.”

Each checkout aisle had a display of Target gift cards. My parent went from aisle to aisle, peering at each display. But each one had the same selection of designs. There was not a single simple generic Target card to be had; our options were to go with something holiday-themed (read: Christmas-y) or to go without.

We walked out of the store with two of the snowflake cards, each one bearing $15 worth of credit.

My parent professed to be surprised by the designs. The store is in the New York City suburbs, and it has a fairly high level of Jewish patronage. In the past, my parent has seen Target offer Chanukah-themed cards at this outlet.

Not this year, it seems.

This isn’t the worst tragedy in the world. Nor is seemingly being inundated with Christmas-themed commercials with more than a week to go before Thanksgiving. Still, it’s annoying — especially given the aggrieved cries from conservative Christians.

Gov. Palin is supposedly irate over people saying “Happy holidays” to her instead of “Merry Christmas.” She’s entitled to that point of view. I just wish that it seemed to her that the birth of Jesus, the world’s most revered Jew, was as prevalent and all-encompassing as I think — and that I perceived his birthday to be as marginalized as she thinks.

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