• Cultural war games
    December 08,2013
     

    In its ongoing effort to protect the American public from the War on Christmas, Fox News has a special online map highlighting current reported atrocities. I am looking at it now, and the message is clear: As problems go, this one is imaginary.

    Some social conservatives embrace a seasonal victimhood this time of year, complaining that Christians are continually being mugged by anti-Christmas atheists bearing court orders. But the map pinpoints only a handful of alleged secular assaults, one of which is titled: “Salvation Army Volunteer Using Smaller Bell After Business Owner Complains.”

    This year’s big book on the subject is by Sarah Palin, which makes it both best-selling and instantly passé. The title (“Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas”) is an attempt to spin a warm and fuzzy view of the War on the War, but I say, if you’re going there, go all the way. Like Fox’s John Gibson, who wrote “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.”

    Palin does paint all attempts to remove religion from any aspect of the season as “the tip of the spear in a larger battle to secularize our culture and make true religious freedom a thing of America’s past.” She also takes a minute to lash out at “snickering” pundits who feel the whole “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” issue is not a big deal. Such as the one who wrote a column in The Times under the headline “My Favorite War.” Which, OK, was me.

    “Good Tidings” is a rather small book, but it still needs a lot of filler: recipes, including one for smoked salmon spread, and family anecdotes. (When Bristol announced she was pregnant, Sarah initially wanted to make her get married, but Todd said no.) Then there was the year Granddad was taken off to the hospital for what everybody feared was a heart attack, but it turned out to be salmon poisoning.

    As the teenaged Sarah Heath, Palin spent one Christmas hoping to get a mini-tape recorder. Her parents forced her to wait until the very end to unwrap her big present, which, she discovered while the rest of the family watched and chortled, was actually a dictionary. The moral, as Palin tells it, is that her parents wanted her to know that “words matter.” It sounds to me as though there was a mean streak in the Heath clan, which perhaps explains a lot.

    Led by the American Family Association and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, conservative Christians have been encouraging boycotts of stores that do not directly connect their aim to sell massive amounts of clothes, toys, electronics and linens over the month of December with the birth of Christ. In her book, Palin recounts the sins and redemption of Walmart, which also gives her a chance to mention that, in 2003, the chain gave its Wasilla outlet a special award for selling 325 miles of duct tape, which averaged out to 314 feet per resident. It’s the kind of detail I appreciate.

    This year, the American Family Association has been declaring war on Radio Shack for an alleged failure to mention Christmas enough, and celebrating a victory over Gap Inc. (“Complete turnaround!”) A spokeswoman for Gap said in a phone interview that the company instructs its staff to cry “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Hanukkah!” and “Joyous Kwanzaa!” to customers, which seems like a lot of effort at an already stressful time of the year. She also volunteered that the company’s Old Navy brand ran TV ads last year “featuring the Griswold family from National Lampoon’s ‘Christmas Vacation.’”

    So, more mentions of the birth of the Savior while promoting sweaters for the whole family.

    We’d be a slightly happier nation if we could just feel good about the ways that Americans make this swell-but-stressful season work. Palin brags about her role as Christmas Warrior when she was mayor of Wasilla. “I knew I’d be criticized and challenged for sanctioning the Nativity scene. ... But I didn’t care,” she writes. This was perhaps, in part, because there actually appeared to be no criticism or challenge whatsoever.

    Given the fact that approximately three-quarters of the American population is Christian, it seems highly unlikely that anyone will be in danger of forgetting that Dec. 25 commemorates the birth of Christ. But you can’t make the entire period running from Thanksgiving to New Year a religious occasion. The holidays are for everyone: nearly six weeks of assorted celebrations, many of them simultaneously sacred and secular.

    The season makes room for the complexity of our far-flung lives. You can rendezvous with long-separated siblings at SeaWorld one weekend, take your spouse’s parents to church the next. You can make a tradition out of anything from football to family dinners to re-running “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Some years you might have a better time than others, but the point is that everybody will be back to do it again in 12 months.

    Happy holidays.



    Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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