Attention, culture warriors: 'Tis the season to be vigilant. An atheist group has plastered Santa-themed antireligion ads on Los Angeles buses. Retailers insist on greeting shoppers with a neutral "Happy holidays," despite threats of boycotts. And the annual ABC broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas was pre-empted by President Obama's address on Afghanistan. The war on Christmas is back.
For decades, American conservatives have been warning of threats posed to the institution by a broad spectrum of foes. Henry Ford blamed Jews for the efforts to remove religious displays from public schools; in the McCarthy era, the John Birch Society saw the holiday as the target of a vast communist conspiracy. Since the 1990s, a right-wing website has held an annual competition for the most egregious example of secularization. (Villains include the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which christened its year-end party "A Celebration of Holiday Traditions.") But it was really during this decade that the Yule Wars caught fire. Fox News host John Gibson's book The War on Christmas hit best-seller lists in 2005, the same year his colleague Bill O'Reilly called moves to tone down the holidays the first steps on a slippery slope toward "legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage." In 2006 Chicago Tribune poll, 68% of respondents agreed that the holiday was under assault.
But skeptics say rumors of a struggle against Santa are an overheated response to the excesses of political correctness, fanned by what commentator Max Blumenthal called a "ratings bonanza for right-wing media." The last to wage war on Christmas were probably the Puritans, who in the 17th century banned Yuletide festivities on the grounds that they didn't square with Scripture. For a godless conspiracy, those are some pious roots.