What would Christmas be without warnings of the secular crusade to destroy it? Thanks to the fulminations of cable news cranks and evangelical moralists, the War on Christmas has become an annual outrage. The story typically goes as follows: secular elements have intimidated stores into replacing the phrase “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays;” nativity scenes have been removed from public spaces under threat of ACLU lawsuits; a decadent culture is moving ever closer to eradicating Christian morality; and America slouches towards Gomorrah.
Judging from the panicked tone of movement conservatives, this year’s War on Christmas campaign threatens the country’s moral fiber more than ever. According to The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger, the secular Grinch has claimed the economy as its latest casualty. “A nation whose people can’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ is a nation capable of ruining its own economy,” he fumed on November 20. Having laid off 20 percent of its staff the day after Election Day, Christian right mega-ministry Focus on the Family declared “Merry Tossmas” imploring its supporters to toss out holiday season product catalogs that wish shoppers “Happy Holidays.” (The 201 freshly unemployed staffers might have more practical reasons to trash their catalogs.)
On December 2, Utah Republican state senator Chris Buttars sponsored an urgent resolution demanding that stores greet shoppers with the phrase, “Merry Christmas.” “I’m sick of the Christmas wars,” Buttars proclaimed. “We’re a Christian nation and ought to use the word.”
The Christmas kulturkampf is a growth industry in a shrinking economy, providing an effective boost for conservative fundraising and a ratings bonanza for right-wing media. So who was the genius that created it? Was it the irascible O’Reilly, or a band of rogue elves from Santa’s workshop? To find the answer, a visit with the ghost of conservatism’s past is in order.
Back during the culture wars of the 1990s, Peter Brimelow, then a Fortune magazine editor, grew incensed with the increasing use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” by retailers like Amazon.com. “I just got real interested in the issue,” Brimelow told The Daily Beast, “because I noticed over the years there was this social shift taking place where people no longer said ‘Merry Christmas.’”
In his 1995 book, Alien Nation, Brimelow argued that the influx of “weird aliens with dubious habits” from developing nations was eroding America’s white Christian “ethnic core,” and in turn, sullying its cultural underpinnings. The War on Christmas was, in his view, a particularly pernicious iteration of the multicultural “struggle to abolish America.”
Brimelow went to his fellow Briton and Tory, John O’Sullivan, then editor of the conservative movement’s flagship publication, National Review, with a big idea. National Review should host “an annual competition for the most egregious attempt to suppress Christmas.” Though O’Sullivan liked Brimelow’s idea, he was replaced as editor on Christmas Eve 1997 by Rich Lowry.
With the exception of a 2001 column in which O’Sullivan blamed “religious minorities” for the War on Christmas, the issue disappeared from the pages of National Review. At the same time, the magazine jettisoned O’Sullivan’s anti-immigration politics in favor of the Big Tent conservatism preferred by younger writers like Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponurru.
The shift at National Review forced Brimelow even further into the political wilderness. Shunned by conservatives there rankled by his unabashed racial resentment—Goldberg belittled him in a 2002 column as a “once respected conservative voice”—Brimelow founded what would become the internet’s leading anti-immigration web journal, VDare.com, named for the first British child born in the Americas. Brimelow’s new venture provided a forum to allies like Jared Taylor, a white supremacist publisher, and Kevin MacDonald, an evolutionary psychology professor who has argued that Jews are genetically equipped to out-compete Gentiles for resources and power. In 2003, four years after VDare’s founding, the Southern Poverty Law Center classified the journal as a “hate group.”
VDare became the staging ground for the War on the War on Christmas. Unlike their more respectable counterparts, Brimelow’s writers dared to name the true anti-Christian Grinch: Jews. The winner of Brimelow’s 2001 War on Christmas competition, a “paleoconservative” writer named Tom Piatak, insisted that those behind the assault on Christmas “evidently prefer” Hanukkah, which he called the “Jewish Kwanzaa,” a “faux-holiday.” “Teaching children about Hanukkah, rather than the beliefs that actually sustained Jews on their sometimes tragic and tumultuous historical journey,” Piatak fumed, “inculcates negative lessons about Christianity, not positive ones about Judaism.”
VDare’s 2005 War on Christmas winner, Steve Sailer, a Eugenics enthusiast and author of the new biography of Barack Obama, America’s Half-Blood Prince, picked up where Piatak left off. “American Jews,” Sailer wrote, “those exemplars of successful assimilation now seem to be de-assimilating emotionally, becoming increasingly resentful, at this late date, of their fellow Americans for celebrating Christmas.” Sailer went on to quote at length from a column by the purportedly Jewish writer, Bert Prelutsky, called “The Jewish Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”
Brimelow was ambivalent when I asked him about Sailer’s theory on Jewish de-assimilation. “It’s an argument,” was all he would say.
Following the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush’s re-election, and the Republican sweep of Congress, Brimelow said conservative movement elites could no longer ignore the right-wing populism sweeping the nation. Suddenly the War on Christmas was gaining traction. “This issue became very popular in the conservative grassroots, so conservative media had to pay concession to it,” he said.
By 2005, Fox News personalities Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson were dedicating entire shows to the War on Christmas. While their rants were directed at “secular progressives,” they echoed the arguments of Brimelow’s allies. “It’s all part of the secular progressive agenda,” O’Reilly grumbled. “If you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs, like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage.” National Review’s website jumped back on the bandwagon, beginning with editor Kathryn Jean Lopez’s promotion of Gibson’s bestselling 2005 polemic, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.
Of the conservatives who once dismissed his Christmas crusade, Brimelow remarked with a self-satisfied chuckle, “They went over to the dark side.”
From its origins in Brimelow’s website and fevered imagination to its popularization by the conservative media, the War on Christmas has become an institution. And the rest is holiday cheer.