Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Is there a war on Christmas? [excerpt]

Is there a war on Christmas? Historian Gerry Bowler argues yes—and that it’s been going on for over 2000 years. The following excerpt from Christmas in the Crosshairs discusses recent incidences of Christmas-time political correctness in America, while highlighting examples of “Merry Christmas legislation.”

How sensitive to holiday slights is the population? Extremely quick to take offense, if we judge by the case of Medina Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington. The parents and children had decided to help the less fortunate by setting up a tree decorated with mittens and bearing the wishes of gift recipients. Already attuned to the sensitivities of the easily offended, they did not call this a “Christmas” tree but a “Giving Tree.” One blushes in embarrassment at their innocence—a complainant quickly alerted the principal to the fact that the tree (a coil of silver topped by a star) “represents some part of Christianity.” So the Giving Tree had to go, to be replaced by the “Giving Counter,” on which the mittens could be inoffensively placed. Lest you think this was an isolated case of a single individual being taken aback by the existence of a “Giving Tree,” we learn of a high school that had to change its donation tree to a “Giving Snowman,” a term that (of course) was quickly deemed to be sexist and changed to a “Giving Snowperson.”

Sometimes no complaint is even necessary before amendments are made. A Seattle area school had to spend $494 in reprint costs because a new employee included the phrase “Merry Christmas” on a cafeteria menu. When seventh-grader Bryan Lafond went to a school party in Hampton, New Hampshire, dressed as Santa Claus, principal Fred Muscara said he told the boy he couldn’t get into the dance because of the costume he was wearing. “It was a holiday party,” said Muscara. “It was not a Christmas party. There is a separation of church and state. We have a lot of students that go to Hampton Academy Junior High that have different religions. We have to be sensitive to that.”

Nativity scenes, which we’ve grown accustomed to seeing during the holiday season, were seldom found in early Christian celebrations. Image credit: “Nativity” by Jeff Weese. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Bryan’s mother was baffled as to how Santa could be viewed as religiously offensive. “The last time I checked, Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Christ and not Santa Claus,” she said. “He didn’t go as Baby Jesus.” What Bryan’s mother did not understand was how dangerous a creature some people in the school systems perceive Santa Claus to be. Good old St. Nick has often been banned from schools for a number of reasons.

In Minnesota a twenty- five-year-old tradition of Santa appearing at a Head Start program to dis- tribute gifts to preschool kids was axed lest children of different cultures be made uncomfortable. Jacqueline Cross, director of Anoka/Washington County Head Start, said the program didn’t want to force “cultural traditions” down the throats of such kids. In Baldwin City, Kansas, the ACLU accused Santa of proselytizing, causing his school visits to be canceled. In Saugus, Massachusetts, the annual visit by firefighters in Santa costumes delivering coloring books was ended because of “church-state” worries. And on and on, from St. Peter, Minnesota, to Fort Worth, Texas, to Vienna, Austria, to Sydney, Australia.

Controversies such as these have led some states to enact “Merry Christmas” legislation. In 2013 Texas passed the following legislation:


relating to a school district’s recognition of and education regarding traditional winter celebrations.


SECTION 1. Subchapter Z, Chapter 29, Education Code, is amended by adding Section 29.920 to read as follows:


(a) A school district may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, and allow students and staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations, including

(1) “Merry Christmas;”

(2) “Happy Hanukkah;” and

(3) “happy holidays.”

(b) Except as provided by subsection (c), a school district may display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree, if the display includes a scene or symbol of:

(1) more than one religion; or

(2) one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol.

(c) A display relating to a traditional winter celebration may not include a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief.

Similar legislation was proposed or passed in ten other states, despite the claims of many that the bills were unnecessary. Texas ACLU spokesman Terri Burke said that First Amendment rights were already sufficient protection and that “right-wing advocacy groups raise of a lot of money this time of year by hyping a fake war on Christmas.”

Featured image credit: “Santa Christmas ornament” by m01229. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Santa Claus

    Gerry: If you actually earned your doctorate, you’d be a proficient researcher. As a matter of fact, contrary to your assertions, the name Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch expression “Sinterklaas” which means Saint Nicholas — the actual Bishop who lived in the area now known as Turkey. When the Dutch settled New Amsterdam, now New York City, their expression, Sinterklaas, became Santa Claus. The Feast of St Nicholas was, and still is in many places, celebrated on December 6th. With limited resources available, the Dutch often combined the Feast of St Nicholas with the celebration of the birth of Christ. That is how Santa Claus became associated with Christmas. Subsequently, Christmas became a crass, commercial, secular spectacle in many places, exploited by businnesses during the winter holiday season. That’s a far cry from your “story” about Christmas. PS: Kris Kringle is derived from the German expression for Christ Child and is a completely different tradition. Do your homework.

Comments are closed.