Is there really a 'War on Christmas?'

Dec 08, 2011

In his recent campaign ad, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry bemoans the fact that "our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school," and says he plans to "end Obama's war on religion."

In Rhode Island, Governor Lincoln Chaffee has drawn criticism for calling the statehouse Christmas tree a "holiday tree."

And Post television writer Hank Stuever notes today that Christmas "commercials have gone too far this year, with many of them depicting a consumer culture that is grabby, hasty, heartless and smug."

What do you think: Is there a 'War on Christmas?'

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield will discuss this topic and other questions or ideas you submit in today's chat about ethical issues in the news.

Is there really a "war" on Christmas?  Perhaps not a war, but there is certainly cultural combat, and like all conflicts, there are combatants on BOTH sides.

I'm Brad Hirschfield, and I welcome you to this week's live discussion on the big ethical issues animating the biggest stories of the day.  We are switching from our usual video format to a written one, but it's still all about your questions and comments, so please join in!

Those who are "true believers" who can't win all of their battles resort to a kind of victim mentality -- Rick Perry and his comments about Christmas that is "forced out " of school programs and so forth. The holiday itself is doing quite well and will make economic inroads as far as consumer spending. Isn't that another way to look at it -- more and more and more shopping days?

slow down, if for no other reason than because it's never useful to simply explain away other people's concerns, even if we don't share them.  you are certainly wise to put quote marks around the words "true believers" when connected those who are angry and fearful, because true belief should, i would think, make one less angry and afraid. 


on the other hand, Christmas is not what it once was in this country -- the presumed holiday of all Americans in a country that was presumed to be Christian even though we knew it wasn't all Christian.  whether the change is positive or not -- and i think it is -- there is still a loss for many people in that change, and simply telling them to "get over it" is both unkind and unwise as it creates the backlash we are witnessing today.


As to Chritmas "winning" because more dollars are spent in connection with the holiday, not sure what kind of victory that is, especially for those who feel disapproved of when they say "Merry Christmas" at the checkout counter.

As a Christian, I don't understand evangelicals whining about the "war on Christmas." Christmas is a co-opt of Sol Invictus, and other pagan elements. Also, secular "Christians" also seem hell-bent (pardon the pun) on ramming it down non-Christians throats. For people who claim that they want the freedom to practice their faith, they don't appear to want to extend that right to others.

As a Christian, you seem to understand only those who share your understanding of Christmas.  Doesn't that make you very much like those you say you don't understand? 


and if we are playing the "historical roots" game in order to devalue other people's understanding of faith, how would you feel if i devalued your Christianity as a co-opted, not to mention poorly understood, version of first century Judaism? All tradtions, including yours and mine, have their roots in something else.  the issue isn't the roots, it's what fruit the tree bears.


you are 100% right about the importance of fighting for the right to celebrate one's faith, or faithlessness, and stop fighting about the importance of others celebrting theirs less.


There are really two questions here, because there are really two Christmases. There is the religious Christmas and the commercial Christmas. I can tell you as a Jewish boy growing up I was much more confused by the commercial Christmas than I was by the religious one. I think I benefitted from my parents explaining the religious Christmas to me and I understood that while this wasn't what we believed, other people did and I should respect that. I still don't understand the rampant commercialism of it though.

really, you didn't get hanukkah presents?  how sad!  you are certainly right that the overtly theological story of christmas is quite beautiful whether one believes in jesus or not.  the willingness to see the beauty and the promise in a little baby, to believe that good things come in tiny packages, and that redemption is possible -- that is great stuff.  in fact, many of those are themes central to hanukkah.  think little cruse of oil bring longer than seemingly possible and it's signal of redemption.


we all need a little light at the darkest time of the year, and that can also include the physical gifts we buy.  so i would celebrate "both" parts of whatever holiday you hold sacred.

My grocery store started putting up Christmas decorations the day after Halloween. One of the local radio stations started playing non-stop Christmas music in November. I don't think Christmas is in danger.

agreed -- christmas is not in danger. 

Governor Perry is using this as just another attack on President Obama- same way that the GOP has attacked everything he has supported (including the GOP's own ideas such as the DREAM act and cap and trade). Perry's attempting to make himself politically relevant by whipping up the Christian right, no more and no less. I'd like to see Governor Perry provide support for his claim that children's personal religious beliefs are being stifled beyond the occaisional anecdotal evidence.

your last observation is so critical!  instead of fighting about whther there is or is not a war on christmas, let's just discuss the facts.  where are children's, or any one else's relgious beliefs being stiffled?  what does mr. perry mean when he declares that the president is at war with religion?  i really want to know!


i am actually sensitive to the tone-deafness which many liberals seem to have when it comes to faith -- think back to democratic presidential debates and candidates poor performance when asked what sacred texts and tradtions inspired them.  but if the response to that tone-deafness is insisting that all people must listen to the same music or risk being called bad people and terrible americans, that's a whole lot worse.  the tone-deafness is a shame and it DOES hurt us, but the other response by perry, can actually get people killed -- at least that is the history of such understandings of faith in the public square.

Do you think it's the "sign of the times" where they say people will turn away from God and that it is the beginning of "The End?" It seems every day there is another attack against God and all He represents.

it may be a sign of the times, but i don't know about either a sign of the end or about attacks on god.  it seems to me that we have one group that attacks people in the name of god, and another group that attacks god in the name of people.  i think most of us know that neither is healthy.


ins't it about time for pre-modern believers and modernist secualrists to stop trying to create the 21st century by having a fight between the 15 century and the 19th century.  enough!  that debate demands that for one side to win, the other must go away.  how about figuring out how to make room for each other?

Look at how Rick Perry is using religion, in the most divisive of ways. Both sides need to stop using religion or the lack of it as a way of promoting themselves and their point of view. The debate is not about "the wars" but about aggrandizing their positions as a way of promoting themselves. How is this good for the country?

nothing to add here but "thank you"!

Why have the local networks stop airing shows like "The Little Drummer Boy," or any Christ-themed Holyday shows that reflect Christian beliefs? Its almost an office crime to say Merry Christmas without the fear of being fired. What gives??!

i'm with you -- i miss the little drummer boy!  i think that one probably went away because it was a clay-mation show and most kids would not watch that today.  of course, the just begs the question.  it should be re-made and aired.


you are correct that the first attempts at greater cultural sensitivity were to silence certain expressions of overtly christian popular culture.  that was a terrible, if somewhat undertandable move.


we need to see inclusion as a process of making space for others, not flattening distinctions between different traditions.  when both sides have more voices that are doing that, the christmas wars will become a christmas peace -- not to mention that little drummer boy will be back!

This is ridiculous. What is a holiday tree? Is that like a holiday menorah? In an attempt at being politically correct he just looks silly. Either have a tree or don't, but call it by its name.

you are totally right!  i have no idea what a holiday tree is.  what holiday?  this is, as you say, time when politcal (or spiritual) correctness become pure silliness.  it may be in the name of sensitivity to others, but it ends up silencing all -- hardly what makes this nation great.

What is too far? Was it okay last year? Where is the line? The holidays have become very commercialized, but this has been going on for a long time. Is it a desperate attempt to get people to spend money? The heart of the problem seems to be we've lost the meaning of the holidays and instead they've become shopping days.

i'm with you about the fuzziness of what it means to go "too far".  that doesn't mean that there should be no limits, but it does mean that we should be VERY careful, especially because where the limits are for most of us, tend to fall out exactly where our own personal comfort zones are.  in other words, it's not that things have gone too far, it's that they have gone too far for whoever is making the claim!

I love it. Hosted by a rabbi? Shalom :)

We need the Christmas and Channukkah stories to be taught to the kids more these days. Do you agree?

Shalom and thanks to you!  i could not agree more, and i would not stop with christmas and chanukha.


We need all of the classic stories that guide our lives to be told.  we need to challenge ourselves as tellers to tell them in ways that can be understood and appreciated by those who do not share our beliefs, and we need to challenge ourselves to learn from the stories of others even though we will never join their tradtion.

When I first saw Perry's ad I thought it was a joke. A SNL sketch. Nope. On a more serious note, I am worried about the term 'War on Christmas' and 'War on Religion'. War implies defending and fighting. How long until someone 'defending religion' gets violent against a Jew or Atheist or anyone who doesn't want to put tax dollars to a Christmas tree?

Perry's ad is no joke.  that means however that we need to take it seriously in all of it's manifestations -- both the potential dangers of using language of war, and also of the genuine feelings of those who use it.  they DO feel under attack, and while it is always easier to dismiss people, especially when they have fewer facts on their side, doping so doesn't work.


first, ultimately there is no other side because we are all in this together -- as americans, as humans, etc.  second, in times of fast-paced and often radical change, even if positve, people get banged up.  it can never be wrong to treat with compassion, those who feel banged up.


comapssion does not mean accepting that all understanding of reality are equal.  it means going the extra mile with people when they are not.

How would you feel if I devalued your Christianity as a co-opted, not to mention poorly understood, version of first century Judaism?  I would thank you for putting it so clearly (for the record, I'm a lapsed Catholic).

so for you, it would not be devaluing at all -- it would affirming your decisions re the church.  thank you for both your honesty and your reminder that we all like being affirmed, regardless of the beleifs we hold.

The people who think such a war exists tend to be like Rick Perry -- dumb. Simpleminded. Willing to believe any outlandish conspiracy theory if it gels with their preconceived notions about how everyone's out to get them. If Perry and his ilk want to do anything, maybe they can try to better live up to the ideals of "peace on earth and good will towards men." But that would mean no longer cheering at executions and mocking those less fortunate, so we know that won't happen. Instead it'll be more whining about imagined threats to a national holiday.

do you feel better now?  i don't mean to be snarky, but how does treating those with whom you disagree with exactly teh same disrespect they show you, help?  in fact, it adds fuel to the fire.


the irony is that you and i probably share many views when it comes to policy.  of course, if all we want to do is talk to each other, and those who already agree with us, we can keep up your approach.  if however, we hope to be taken seriously by any of those who disagree, we need to engage them where they are, not where we are.  doing any less means that we are not better when it comes to all that peace on earth and good will "stuff".


i know, but we are right.  sometimes though, we all have to choose between luxuriating in our correctness, and actually being kind and effective. 

The most irritating thing to me is the claim that "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays" are a modern replacement for "Merry Christmas." I was born in 1954 and clearly remember cards, letters, decorations, carols, etc. with both "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays" in/on them from my earliest childhood, and I don't doubt that they date back much farther than that.

they are NOT replacements for each other, and i suspect, that far more than using such terms, it is the claim that they are, which causes much of the hurt and anger that is out there.


the issue should not be, which is the correct thing to say, it should be, how and why do people choose which to say when.  sometimes we will get it right, and sometimes not, but there must be room for both.

Decorating an evergreen tree is a Nordic solstice tradition much older than Christianity. These "war on Christmas" folks are deliberately ignoring or distorting history. Besides, the early Christian church deliberately superimposed its major holiday on existing pagan traditions marking the equinoxes, solstices, and cross-quarter days, so why the fuss about keeping "Christ in Christmas"? Besides, of course, the brushing aside of other cultures in the U.S. Happy Hanukkah, by the way.

let's start with the easy one:  what evidence you or anyone else have for hannukah being "brushed aside" in comtemporary culture?  if anything, it gets a far greater amount of coverage than is proportional to the number of people celebrating it.  perhaps that is one reason i am so sensitive to those who feel that christmas, as they would like it observed, sometimes gets s"shorted".


as to the issue of what a christmas tree "really is", i will do this once more:  are you kidding me?  are you really nothing more than a collection of cells such that i can do what i want with you because when seen at that level you are not a human?

we can always shift the focus of our lense to allow us to make more of things than they are, or less of them than they are.  typcially, we all make more of the things we like and less of those we don't.  perhaps, at least at this time of year we should do the opposite.

Thanks for so many great questions.  I'm Brad Hirschfield and we'll continue this conversation next week -- a conversation about the biggest stories in the news and the big human questions which lie at their center.


In This Chat
Bradley Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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