The crowd just south of the White House roared last week as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke introduced “a man who loves our parks” and “who brought ‘Merry Christmas!’ back to our nation’s capital.”
Zinke beamed as he pointed to Trump, who was off stage. “And you did, sir! It is my high honor to introduce the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump and our beautiful first lady [Melania Trump].”
The honor was Zinke’s because he oversees the National Park Service (he opened his remarks by saying that “our public lands are our greatest treasures”), and the park service oversees the annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree.
The tradition, including use of the phrase “Merry Christmas,” dates to 1923. That year the D.C. public schools put a 48-foot fir tree outside the White House. On Christmas eve, President Coolidge walked out and hit a switch that lit the tree. The event was described in Time magazine on January 7 of 1924—the news cycle moved more slowly then. A brass quartet of the Marine Band played, and “at nine in the evening the choir and an assembled multitude sang Christmas carols on the north lawn. At midnight a group of Negro voices renewed the carolling about the great Christmas tree.”
Trump, who this week ordered a blow to the National Park Service with the largest-ever rollback of federal land protection, took the podium from Zinke. He noted that in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation making Christmas a federal holiday. “I sort of feel like we’re doing that again,” he said. “That’s what’s happening.”
Later that evening, he wrote on Twitter, “It is my tremendous honor to finally wish America and the world, a very MERRY CHRISTMAS!”
Hearing the words would have come as a relief for millions of Americans who disagreed with President Obama’s decision to repeal Christmas. Recall that when Congress tried to tell him to stop, he said, “No way, no, no, no. I am Obama, and I do what I like. Political correctness!”
For eight bizarre years, the south lawn was dark and empty. There was an iron pentagram on a tower that said “Happy Holidays.” In the place of the National Christmas Tree, there was a glowing orb that emitted shrieking sounds. Anyone who touched it was overwhelmed by sexual urges. One passer-by saw the display and said, “That’s not very Christmas!” He was never seen again.
That is one version of history, of course, barely exaggerated from the narrative created by some conservative media outlets. The accurate version is that Obama had eight trees, one per year, just as every president did. He wished citizens “Merry Christmas” thousands of times. And even though the Trump White House put out a press release after this year’s event titled “At Christmas Tree Lighting, President Trump Revives the Tradition’s Religious Spirit,” his gesture to Christianity was limited to the line, “Whatever our beliefs, we know that the birth of Jesus Christ and the story of his life forever changed the course of human history.”
At last year’s tree lighting, Obama told the story of the birth of Jesus:
Along with celebrations like these, the holidays also offer us a time for reflection and perspective. And over these next few weeks, as we celebrate the birth of our Savior, as we retell the story of weary travelers, a star, shepherds, Magi, I hope that we also focus ourselves on the message that this child brought to this Earth some 2,000 years ago — a message that says we have to be our brother’s keepers, our sister’s keepers, that we have to reach out to each other, to forgive each other. To let the light of our good deeds shine for all.
Obama also argued that to celebrate Christmas is not necessarily to exclude other holidays, since some of the messages are universal. He said that the basic message behind this parable is what “grounds not just my family’s Christian faith, but that of Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, nonbelievers—Americans of all backgrounds.”
It could of course be argued that the tree-lighting ceremony is simply a Christmas-themed event, and no mention of other holidays is necessary. Though Trump did mention another holiday, closing his remarks with: “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, thank you.”
This was a conspicuous omission in the context of Trump’s work to actively create mutual exclusivity where none exists. He continues to stoke an artificial battle between “Happy holidays!” and “Merry Christmas!” that is as false as the battle between a border wall and an open invitation to criminals to pillage the populace. It is as false as the choice between discussing measures to curb gun violence and inviting the armed services to descend upon American homes to confiscate anything that even looks like a weapon.
Even accepting the holidays-vs.-Christmas premise buys into this false equivalence. Like most exclamatory phrases, the usage of “Happy Holidays!” and “Merry Christmas!” is best guided by knowing one’s audience. For example, greeting a church youth group with “Happy Ramadan” would make no more sense than greeting a delegation of rabbis with “Merry Christmas” or exiting a room with “What’s up!” It’s only slightly less weird to insist that the appropriate greeting for an entire, increasingly diverse country is “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year!”
To do this is to turn the holiday into a tool of demagoguery. A professed desire to “bring back” an expression that never left is actually an allusion to bringing back something that was slowly leaving. It is an homage to an era when the nation was Christian and any other religion was second-class, and when whiteness meant unquestioned authority.
If there is a war on Christmas, it is one waged by those who, like Trump, are using the holiday to divide people and consolidate power. Given the long and clearly recorded history of Christmas pageantry in Washington, this can be the only sense in which it could be said that Trump is “bringing ‘Merry Christmas’ back to our nation’s capital.”