Thank you, President Trump!
Because of you, my family was able to celebrate and say "Merry Christmas" this holiday season. That's something we haven't been able to do since ... last Christmas.
As GetReligion readers probably heard, the president congratulated himself in a Christmas Eve tweet: "People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!"
So much winning — and Christmas spirit!
But personally, I identified with the response of Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, to Trump's tweet: "So, was this a thing that I missed? Were some of you really ashamed of saying Merry Christmas before the election? Or afraid to? Teach me — are you proud and more bold now? What?" (See Stetzer's Twitter timeline for some excellent feedback that he received.)
Here's the deal, though: Trump's emphasis on Christmas — like his "Make America Great Again" slogan — has tapped into something deeper than saying Merry Christmas, as nice PBS Newshour segment noted Monday night.
I recall that when I interviewed Robert Jeffress, one of Trump's key evangelical advisers, earlier this year, I asked about the Christmas issue.
Jeffress told me:
People say, 'Well, what’s the big deal about Merry Christmas? I think President Trump understands that Christianity has been marginalized in our country. For the two years I’ve known him, he’s talked about that quite a bit, the marginalization of Christianity. He certainly believes that people of all faiths or no faith ought to have the right to practice whatever faith they have. But he’s noticed the decline of Christianity in America, and that concerns him.
Real war on Christmas or not (for what it's worth, the Washington Post's opinion Twitter account thought Dec. 25 was a great day to question Jesus' existence), Trump's Christmas focus seems to have resonated with much of his evangelical Christian base.
PBS' helpful report — with important background and context — explored "How ‘the war on Christmas’ became a political rallying cry."
Among those featured on the segment were Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Amy Sullivan, author of “The Party Faithful” and co-host of the podcast “Impolite Company.”
Perkins discussed the importance of the issue to him and fellow evangelicals:
Well, I think it’s important, but it’s from a standpoint of, it’s emblematic of a bigger debate that’s been really raging in this country.
And that is the ability to express one’s faith openly, without concern. And I think the president, when he made that a campaign issue, tapped into something that a lot of people just didn’t understand, that there were a large number of evangelicals, Christians, in this country that felt increasingly uncomfortable about expressing their faith, especially at Christmastime, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, to whom, to Christians, that is our lord and savior.
And it is a very, very important and special time of the year.
And Sullivan's take:
I would think that Jesus wouldn’t really care if we said merry Christmas, but I think there are things Jesus cares about.
I think that the overfocus on consumption around Christmastime, even the fact that it’s become, as we have talked about, more of a secular holiday for people to spend with family and to focus on exchanging gifts, rather than actually being in church, that can be a concern to those of us who see it as a celebration of the birth of our savior.
And yet there are a whole lot of churches who today aren’t having services, even though it’s Christmas Day.
Earlier, Washington Post religion writers Michelle Boorstein and Sarah Pulliam Bailey (a former GetReligion contributor) had a nuanced report headlined "Hate saying ‘Merry Christmas’ now? Everyone has Trump on the brain."
Boorstein and Bailey highlighted thought-provoking real-people sources, along with poll data on how American opinions on saying Merry Christmas have changed in recent years. One of the more intriguing takes from those interviewed by the Post:
Matt Lewis, a conservative pundit and writer, said intellectually he thinks Trump’s alleged liberation of the holiday is a joke. He makes a point to say: “Isn’t it so good that we can now say ‘Merry Christmas!’ ” — in the same way he says “so much winning!” when something involving the government seems messed up — to mock Trump’s slogans. Yet Lewis can’t help noticing that this year he feels a subtle lifting of whatever anxiety he may have had — but didn’t realize — about saying “Merry Christmas.”
“I’m not a fan of the way Trump has weaponized this issue and the culture war. But by bringing it up and making an issue and in a way making it laughable, I do think it loosened things up a bit,” he said. “It may be [Trump] hits people differently. Someone in another part of the country might see it earnestly. For me it’s an ironic thing. We sort of laugh at that because it’s absurd that people couldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas,’ but in a way that creates a permission structure to say it!”
Lewis notices himself tacking on a “Isn’t it great that we can say ‘Merry Christmas?’ ” after saying it — but he still is saying it more, he says. Trump seems to have made things a little better, Lewis says, “though intellectually I can’t tell you why.”
Meanwhile, an expert quoted by The Associated Press pointed out the lack of a political downside for Trump to keep talking about his love for "Merry Christmas":
But critics say Trump is using Christmas as a cudgel in cultural warfare.
“This is like kneeling during the national anthem,” said Dan Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Cassino, who has polled and written on the issue, said there’s no real downside for Trump in keeping up the Christmas talk.
“People who believe it is important feel much more strongly than people who feel you should say Happy Holidays,” Cassino said. “The people who are opposed feel much less strongly.”
Still, Trump’s efforts became a punch line on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” recently as Alec Baldwin portrayed a festive Trump wishing people a “Merry Christmas.”
He added: “You can finally say that again, because the war on Christmas is over. It will soon be replaced by the war on North Korea.”
Ha ha ha.
Or is it ho ho ho?
In any case, Merry (day after) Christmas!
Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts and insights on the war (or not) on Christmas and news media coverage of it.