SANTA MONICA, Calif. – As dusk fell on Palisades Park, a greenbelt atop an oceanfront bluff in this prosperous seaside city, no uniformed combatants were present. But this 26.4-acre idyll is as close as anyplace in America to the front lines in the War on Christmas.
The long-simmering conflict, which some trace as far back as the 1920s, has gained new prominence in recent years, thanks in part to efforts by a militant pro-Christmas broadcaster, the Fox News Channel, to document anti-Christmas aggression. Its star personality, Bill O'Reilly, may be remembered for his coverage of the conflict much as Bernard Shaw's journalistic legacy is inseparable from his dispatches from the Persian Gulf War. And this year, Fox's sophisticated web operation is soliciting field reports from allied civilians.
Decades ago, Christmas fighters would have counted Santa Monica as a key West Coast stronghold. Its erstwhile nickname, "The City of the Christmas Story," was conferred because starting in 1953, Christian residents decided to erect and display life-sized nativity scenes. They sought and were denied funding from nearby churches (which didn't want to cooperate with one another), only to find a willing patron in the local chamber of commerce, which thought the display would attract holiday shoppers. The tradition persisted for decades without controversy.
But with time, the independent municipality of 90,000 grew even more liberal and secular in its mores than neighboring Los Angeles. It is now home to what one pro-Christmas tract calls "one of the most powerful persons in America ... an angry atheist with a lawyer." And as Sarah Palin, a private contractor allied with Christmas, documents in her New York Times bestseller Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, factional tension here began to crescendo in 2009. That's when a local atheist erected a sign in Palisades Park labeling all religions "fables and mythology." Two years later, during the winter fighting season, an alliance of secularists decided to secure their own holiday display permits. The flanking maneuver proved an effective tactic, as Palin documented:
The religions they supposedly represented were not quite kosher. For example, they requested a display honoring the "Pastafarian religion," which would include the "great Flying Spaghetti Monster." The city granted their permits. Out of twenty-one displays, eighteen were atheistic. Two Christmas displays had traditional Nativity scenes, the Jewish display showcased a menorah, and the atheist displays were designed to provoke and offend. One sign read:
SEASON OF THE WINTER SOLSTICE LET REASON PREVAIL. THERE ARE NO GODS, NO DEVILS, NO ANGLES NO HEAVEN OR HELL. THERE IS ONLY ONE NATURAL WORLD. RELIGION IS BUT A MYTH AND SUPERSTITION THAT HARDENS HEARTS AND ENSLAVES MINDS
Another display had four images: Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus and Satan, along with the text:
THIRTY-SEVEN MILLION AMERICANS KNOW MYTHS WHEN THEY SEE THEM. WHAT MYTHS DO YOU SEE?
The signs caused an uproar, and many were vandalized. After tiring of refereeing the religious war, the city ended its nearly sixty-year-long Christmas story Nativity tradition.
With this alleged war crime by Christmas partisans in the recent past and a major War on Christmas battlefield so close to my home, I resolved to embark on fact-finding missions in liberal, secular strongholds including Southern California, New York City, and Washington, D.C. I've since surveyed American life in the places most likely to be antagonistic to the holiday, trying to judge whether rebel forces will vanquish it.
The question is not without its impact on my family: My father and grandfather have strung Christmas lights along the eaves of their respective houses, marking them as targets for any passing hostiles. House-to-house searches would turn up decorative Christmas trees, St. Nick paraphernalia, and carved nativity figurines. Would anti-Christmas forces sweep down the 405 Freeway across the unfortified border with Orange County, training their fire on holiday celebrations religious and secular in the very place where I formed my happiest Christmas memories? Before reaching any conclusions, I decided to reflect at some distance from home.
In New York City, a Towering Symbol of Christmas Might
The plane landed before dawn on a late November morning, the temperature hovering around freezing. A hired driver assured me that he could navigate an airport road pocked with giant potholes, ferry me safely into Manhattan, and take me past Rockefeller Center before dropping me at my hotel. The towering symbol wasn't yet on display. But subsequent news reports confirmed its arrival, and Christmas pilgrims from all over the country began to visit: In the heart of New York, workmen uncontroversially erected a 76-foot Christmas tree, decorating it with 45,000 lights and framing the sight line from Fifth Avenue with angels.
The tree-lighting ceremony, held in early December, included remarks by Michael Bloomberg, the city's Jewish mayor, who called the Christmas tree "one of New York City’s most beloved and iconic landmarks." Entertainers at the tree-lighting ceremony included global celebrities Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Jewel. Millions watched the event, which aired on NBC, one of America's oldest and most watched broadcast networks.
Of course, Christmas trees aren't the most religious of the many holiday symbols, so on my visit, I asked New Yorkers on the street if they could recommend any activities to a religiously inclined Christian visiting the city during December. One noted that the Oratorio Society of New York has been performing Messiah, George Frideric Handel's extended reflection on Jesus Christ, since 1874. "May they reign—along with the newer Trinity Wall Street 'Messiah'—for ever and ever," the New York Times wrote in its 2013 review. Most people recommended that I visit one of the numerous Christian churches in New York, many of which display nativity scenes. Thirteen different options were suggested to me in the course of an hour spent chatting up passersby.
The opposition's counteroffensive: Having already secured a ban on nativity scenes in NYC public schools, a small faction of atheists paid for a billboard in Times Square that says, "Who Needs Christ During Christmas?" Zero politicians showed up to celebrate its unveiling, along with zero entertainers and zero broadcast networks. Meanwhile, in shopping districts throughout the city, an army of retail workers busied themselves erecting Christmas displays and covering floor space in the distinct colors of the holiday. A couple days later, when I departed from Grand Central Station (itself the site of a large Christmas tree) I hadn't any worries about my Christian friends who'd remain through the New Year. If a War on Christmas was being waged in New York, Christmas was winning.
A Christmas Surge in Washington, D.C.
In the nation's capitol, the religious side of Christmas found me as I stood at Union Market. Inside the artisanal food venue for gentrifiers, a choir from a local black church swayed on stage as they sang, "Happy birthday, Jesus! Happy birthday, Lord!" Smiling families stood watching, as did a Muslim man passing out leaflets for an interfaith holiday vigil. As I departed the building, I noticed an outdoor Christmas-tree market. With so many loading coniferous trees into their cars and trucks, it occurred to me that people throughout the city were putting Christmas symbols in living rooms, many of them with uncurtained, street-facing windows.
Were they being brave or mainstream?
Of course, the customs of these civilian shoppers didn't tell me anything about how the power elite in the capital would relate to Christmas and to the battle over it.
President Obama, widely regarded as the most powerful man in the world, said last year that "in times of war and peace, triumph and tragedy, we've always come together to rejoice in the Christmas miracle." Would he send the same signals this year?
On December 6, while I attended a secular holiday party at the Corcoran Gallery, Obama was across town at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, where he mused in explicitly religious terms about the founder of Christianity. "Each Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a child who came into the world with only a stable’s roof to shelter Him," Obama said. "But through a life of humility and the ultimate sacrifice, a life guided by faith and kindness towards others, Christ assumed a mighty voice, teaching us lessons of compassion and charity that have lasted more than two millennia. He ministered to the poor. He embraced the outcast. He healed the sick. And in Him, we see a living example of scripture that we ought to love others not only through our words, but also through our deeds."
The ceremony also included a performance by Aretha Franklin, who sang the words, "Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare Him room. And heaven and nature sing! And heaven and nature sing!" In a subsequent verse, Franklin sang of Jesus Christ, "The Savior reigns!"
The National Christmas Tree is not a solitary symbol. It is surrounded by a phalanx of 56 other Christmas trees. And the nearby White House is itself a veritable Christmas tree arboretum. "The two trees that flank the East entrance are complete with gold pinecones and the garland around the entrance is accented by burgundy ribbons," according to its website. A nearby landing "features a tree dedicated to the memory of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country." Outside, in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, "sits a Christmas tree wrapped in lights, perched atop a sleigh," while the East Garden Room "showcases stacked books which morph into Christmas trees." There are also hand chosen, distinctly decorated Christmas trees in the Library, the Vermeil Room, the China Room, the Grand Foyer, Cross Hall, the Blue Room, and the Green Room. The State Dining Room and the Red Room each feature two Christmas trees.
On Sunday, while surrounded by even more Christmas trees at the annual "Christmas in Washington" concert, Obama said of Jesus Christ, "Through his example, he taught us that we should love the Lord, love our neighbors, as we love ourselves. It’s a teaching that has endured for generations. And today, it lies at the heart of my faith and that of millions of Americans, and billions around the globe."
Opposition leader John Boehner, speaker of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, turns out to be on the same side as the president in the War on Christmas, as shown by his leading role in the ceremony to light the Capitol Christmas Tree. “You look up at this awe-inspiring Dome and you look up at the night sky, you get overwhelmed. Perhaps just as those humble shepherds were when the angel appeared before them," he said. "Out in the middle of nowhere, they must have wondered what on Earth was going on. ‘Fear not,’ the angel said, ‘For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy… For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’"
No atheists spoke at the event.
Around the same time, the religious group Faith and Action exercised their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion by standing before the Supreme Court building in broad daylight, dressed up in 1 A.D. garb as if part of a nativity scene.
The annual gathering attracted respectful coverage from the national press. Just days later, departing the Christmas-tree-filled city via Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, I stepped up to the Alaska Airlines ticket counter to check in for the day's first flight west, only to hear over the loudspeakers a familiar tune: "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go." In the nation's capital, the words rang true. But I would be flying roughly 3,000 miles to a faraway coast bereft of snow. Far from the nation's financial and political capitals, outside the northeast-obsessed gaze of the national media, were anti-Christmas forces expanding their influence? Eager to reunite with my family, I made my way to Orange County to find out.
Shock and Awe in the Land of Sunshine
As it turns out, I needn't have worried. Costa Mesa, where I grew up, is home to South Coast Plaza, one of the nation's premier shopping malls and a Christmas stronghold. Even more imposing than the 96-foot fir tree rising in an interior atrium and decorated with all manner of ornaments are the topiary reindeer sentinels glaring at all who pass by on surrounding city streets. Were I an anti-Christmas foot soldier, I'd be loath to challenge these antlered adversaries, for the ground troops are augmented by comrades who sit atop giant Christmas ornaments–lookouts that afford them an unobstructed view of all traffic as it passes on major thoroughfares. I managed to snap this photograph of one such reindeer atop his perch:
A couple miles away at "The Lab" and "The Camp," a duplex of outdoor hipster malls, there were no reindeer sentinels present, but pro-Christmas forces had infiltrated even the People's Market, adapting their propaganda to its ironic vernacular:
But the young and hip are often cash poor and riddled with credit-card debt. Curious about the strength of Christmas among the disproportionately powerful, wealthy, and privileged 1 percent, I ventured to neighboring Newport Beach, where I found a 90-foot Christmas tree lit by local icon Mickey Mouse, but also the 105th annual Newport Harbor boat parade, in which multimillionaires decorate their yachts with anything from giant Santa Claus figures on jet skis to nativity scenes playing out beneath lighted palm trees. The nearby neighborhood of Lido Island also has a street nativity scene at the entrance to one of its gated communities. Satisfied that my own Christmas-celebrating family would be safe even in the less ritzy city next door, I finally ginned up the courage to venture from the L.A. house where I live into neighboring Santa Monica.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Unable to find anyone antagonistic to Christmas on my first foray into Palisades Park, I returned a day later wearing a half-zipped red sweatshirt over a green T-shirt, as well as red beach sandals. The late December temperature hovered around 80 degrees, and dozens of people passed me, but none were antagonistic, even as I began wishing people a Merry Christmas. Many replied, "Merry Christmas!"
Shortly thereafter, I stumbled upon a copy of the Santa Monica Daily Press, a local newspaper that complicated the narrative I'd read about in Palin's book. The city had banned unattended holiday displays in the park, and the decision was widely regarded as one of the foremost anti-Christmas victories in the nation. But it turns out that the victory wasn't nearly so complete as I'd imagined. On Sunday, December 15, local Christians held the opening ceremony for the nativity scene in Palisades Park, with the blessing of the city, which had no objection to attended holiday displays. A 24-foot banner was unfurled depicting nativity scenes, and would be displayed at the park at various times throughout December.
Anyone wishing to see a permanent display of 13 life-sized nativity scenes could do so a five-minute drive away at Maple Street and 14th Street, the site of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church. The scenes, spread across two blocks, sat on the edge of the sidewalk. As well, "Primo De Jesus, an activist and member of Trinity Baptist Church, one of the churches traditionally involved with the scenes, is suing City Hall and one of the atheists involved in flooding the nativity lottery in 2011," the Santa Monica newspaper reported in a front-page article. "His suit, which makes numerous allegations including hate crimes and irreparable injuries, is asking for more than $5 million in damages. Damon Vix, the atheist defendant named in the case, had not heard about the suit before he was reached for comment from the Daily Press."
As it turns out, he has abandoned his activism in the city.
Before visiting the nativity scenes at their new location, I ventured over to the 3rd Street Promenade, the most trafficked pedestrian thoroughfare in Santa Monica. It's a quick walk from Palisades Park. And it turns out that it's a Christmas stronghold. Signs atop a red-and-white-striped pole led me to the outdoor Christmas tree. As I approached, a performer in a Santa hat said into a microphone, "I want you all to get in the Christmas spirit," before launching into a rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." As an Amazon.com shopper who has heard thirdhand about commercial shopping establishments using "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," I was surprised to see, upon entering brick-and-mortar stores, how often I encountered "Merry Christmas."
Take the bookmongers at Barnes and Noble. "Celebrate the Christmas Season!" a cardboard display announced. "Merry Christmas" a gift card featuring Santa Claus declared. A poster for the Nook Simple Touch displayed the product loaded with the book Christmas Angel by Jane Maas. And a TV screen scrolling through announcements informed me that if I download the Nook app on my iPhone I'll get a free copy of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Departing the store, I still felt something was missing from my Southern California Christmas experience, but I needn't have worried. Outside a 3rd Street Promenade bar I found just what I was seeking: Santa Claus with a surfboard (his preferred mode of transportation in these parts), a hammock strung between palm trees and filled with presents, and a sign wishing Santa Monica passersby a merry Christmas. All the better that just beneath the display I could acquire burritos, fajitas, and margaritas, to blow off steam in classic war-correspondent fashion.
With Christmas itself just days away, it appears the local tally in the War on Christmas is as follows. Rebel forces have succeeded in forcing Christmas partisans to refrain from displaying nativity scenes in Palisades Park while they are not there. At the same time, the forces of Christmas have succeeded in erecting a permanent nativity display elsewhere; symbols of the holiday dominate the city's shopping district; an annual Christmas run sent more than 10,000 runners clad in red and green through the streets of Santa Monica and Venice; and on Christmas Day itself, religious celebrations of Christ's birth will take place at tax-exempt Santa Monica houses of Christian worship including Santa Monica Catholic Church, Pacific Crossroads Church, First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, Vintage Church, Metro Cavalry Chapel, United Methodist, Immanuel Bible Church, St. Anne's Catholic Church, and others besides.
Christmas as Triumphant Hegemon
Hostility to Christmas, in both its commercial and religious incarnations, does exist in this country. Lawsuits are filed by atheists attempting to shut down nativity scenes. If some Christian conservatives wish to describe this conflict using a war metaphor, that is their prerogative—and rather than object, why not point out what honesty requires anyone who uses that metaphor to acknowledge? If war is the operative metaphor, Christmas is kicking ass in the War on Christmas. In the United States, Christmas dominates the culture for an entire month. This is true on the coasts and in the heartland, in red and blue counties, among both parties in the nation's capital, and even in liberal, secular Santa Monica.
Anti-Christmas forces, insofar as they can be found, are comparatively weaker than literally every fighting force in the history of war. The bulk of attacks on Christmas aren't just inconsequential. They're known to the public only because pro-Christmas forces choose to exaggerate their importance in media outlets they control. In no other war is the bulk of one side's publicity effectively underwritten by its ostensible adversary. The resources brought to bear are so disparate that the opposing sides were better matched in the U.S. invasion of Grenada.
While the secularization of Christmas is a real phenomenon, and understandably upsets some Christians, it is a function not of opposition to Christmas, but of the secularization of America—a process explained not by any enemy exterior to religion, but by millions of people independently deciding that organized religion isn't compelling to them. In fact, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, millions who attend religious services on no other day of the year will fill church pews, even as millions more sit at home watching movies like It's a Wonderful Life that spread the religiously infused Christmas spirit to a nationwide audience. Christmas is the day when the cultural strength of Christianity in America is at its apex.