As Christmastime takes the United States by storm, the controversy surrounding appropriate season’s greetings rears its ugly head once again. Wish somebody “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and you risk stumbling into an unexpected controversy. After all, “Happy holidays” is a neutered statement enforced by the gutless politically correct culture we live in, right?
Not by a long shot, actually.
Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas
Many people think of “Happy holidays” as a result of the PC culture of the 1990s, under the belief that folks started using it as a way of acknowledging the dozens of Christmas-like holidays celebrated in December. In truth, the greeting was used often in the 1990s…but it was also used in the 1890s.
For the most part, “Happy holidays” and “Season’s greetings” were used interchangeably with “Merry Christmas.” In fact, Irvin Berlin’s 1942 song “Happy Holiday” became a Christmas standard (often put into a medley with Kay Thompson’s “The Holiday Season”) despite originally serving as a New Year’s song in the film Holiday Inn.
Simply put, “Happy holidays” has been used interchangeably with “Merry Christmas” for centuries. Generally speaking, the use of the term was never about political correctness.
The “War on Christmas”
Conservative pundits in the early 2000s began the tradition of complaining about a “War on Christmas,” and the phrase “Happy holidays” became a favorite punching bag.
This was done partly as a way to appeal to the very old demographic that listens to those folks (the median age for primetime watchers of Fox News, for example, was 68 years old in 2015). It’s very easy to sell a complaint to an audience who wants to hear that things were better when they were younger. Sadly, this particular issue has a darker past than people realize.
Before the phrase “War on Christmas” entered widespread use in conservative news media, it made its debut through a site run by white supremacist Peter Brimelow. Brimelow described the use of the phrase “Happy holidays” as an attempt to abolish America. This was far from the first time that racism and a call to purify Christmas would go hand in hand.
Automaker Henry Ford was also a rabid anti-Semite, and he frequently attacked the Jewish people for what he believed to be assaults on a Christian nation. A 1921 publication of his weekly pamphlet The International Jew stated that, “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth.” Ford went on to state that Jews in America showed a venomous opposition to Christmas.
Through the 20th century, the frequency of complaints about a conspiracy to destroy Christmas increased dramatically with religious devotion in the United States. For example, during the rise of religiosity of the 1950s, households began calling to “Put Christ back in Christmas.”
Unfortunately, when people complain about the supposed “War on Christmas,” they’re drawing arguments directly from one of history’s biggest anti-Semites, the fervor that swept the nation during the McCarthy Era, and a white supremacist – not the best of company to be in.
The Real Holiday War
People have complained about an assault on Christmas for at least a century, and yet the holiday has only grown. The real attacks comes not from people trying to take the holiday away, but rather folks who feel threatened by the growing diversity in America.
Every time a culture shifts, people often feel threatened. From the 1900s to the 1940s, the Jewish population in America nearly tripled, and people like Henry Ford felt that their Christian values would fade into obscurity. In the 1950s, the fear of communism and atheism gripped America, and people circled their wagons around the notion of keeping Christmas “pure.”
Given the eras in the 20th century when people most complained about an attack on Christmas in the past, it’s no surprise that the words “War on Christmas” became an annual refrain in the 21st century, especially with census data pointing to an increasingly diverse and less exclusively Christian nation.
In short, there is no war on Christmas – just a group of vocal people who are afraid that America’s acceptance of other religions somehow weakens their own. And those people shouldn’t worry – Christmas isn’t going anywhere. And if somebody says, “Happy holidays,” just take it in the spirit it is intended.