‘War on Christmas’

Earlier this month, Dedra Shannon hung a 6-foot drawing of Linus from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — complete with scrawny tree and Bible quote — from the nurse’s office door at the middle school in Killeen, Texas, where she works.

The picture was up for two days before Shannon was asked to take it down — not the tree or Linus, just the biblical quote: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord."

Although she agreed and took down the whole thing, Shannon told the local Fox News affiliate, "I’m disappointed. It is a slap in the face of Christianity."

Newspapers, blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and cultural pundits across the nation were soon debating this latest affront in the "War on Christmas."

What most people don’t know is that the "War on Christmas" is nothing new. A "war" over the holiday has been raging for more than 2,000 years.

Few scholars know more about this annual yuletide slugfest than Gerry Bowler, author of the new book "Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday."

Bowler recently spoke with The Star about why early Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas, how Stalin and Hitler politicized it, and why today’s department store Santas can’t say "ho, ho, ho" anymore.

Q: "Christmas in the Crosshairs" is your third book on the history and cultural impact of Christmas. How did you become the Christmas expert?

A: I began my academic career as a historian of 16th-century English political thought, but Christmas caught my attention in the early 1990s when I was asked to contribute a trivia quiz to a holiday party.

The Christmas questions I asked seemed to intrigue my audience, and I began to collect information on the subject for almost a decade before I realized I had enough to publish in the form of "The World Encyclopedia of Christmas" in 2000. After that, the history of Santa Claus and then telling the story of 2,000 years of arguing about the season seemed natural.

Q: You’ve written that celebrating the birth of Christ wasn’t really that important to early Christians. Why was that?

A: To the early Christian church, the important focus was on the return of Christ, which they believed was imminent. The earthly origins of Jesus seemed far less important, which was why two out of the four gospels (Mark and John) contain no information about the nativity at all.

It was only when some thinkers began to claim that Jesus had only appeared in spirit form, and that he had never had a physical body, that the church realized it had to talk more about the birth in Bethlehem, the cradle and the arrival of the wise men.

Q: When did Santa Claus enter the picture?

A: In 1821, an illustrated poem was published in New York entitled "The Children’s Friend: A New Year’s Present, to Little Ones from Five to Twelve." We don’t know who wrote it, but this unknown genius revolutionized the story of Santa Claus.

Up until that moment, the magical gift-bringer had been St. Nicholas or, in the term used by New York Dutch families, "Sinterklaas."

The anonymous poet calls him "Santeclaus," takes him out of his bishop’s uniform, shifts the night of his arrival from St. Nicholas’ Eve (Dec. 5) to Christmas Eve, puts him in fur-trimmed robes and has him pulled in a reindeer sleigh.

Q: How did Santa Claus come to be embraced by parents?

A: Washington Irving led the way by reminding New Yorkers of the folk memory of Dutch settlers who had brought with them St. Nicholas as a magical gift-bringer, flying over the rooftops in a horse-drawn cart.

Others such as Clement Clarke Moore, author of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," popularized the notion of a kindly, non-sectarian, non-ethnic, fur-clad visitor who bestowed Christmas gifts on children.

This coincided with new, gentler child-rearing ideas and with the Industrial Revolution, which produced cheap manufactured gifts in abundance.

Santa Claus became an almost-instant conspiracy among American (and later, European) parents to make Christmas special for their young ones.

Q: But then there was backlash against the commercialization of Christmas. You write about groups such as the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving and the Shop Early campaign.

A: These were both attempts in the beginning of the 20th century to reduce the pressures that a commercial Christmas placed on the working class.

SPUG protested against the custom of employees being expected to give presents to their superiors. Shop Early urged people to buy gifts before the last minute to spare workers stress and unpaid overtime.

Since then, all kinds of groups like the Advent Conspiracy, the Buy Nothing Christmas movement and the Simple Living campaign have tried to lessen the commercial aspect of the holiday.

Q: How has Christmas clashed with politics in the past?

A: Dictators have a problem with Christmas, which celebrates the birthday of someone who claims a higher allegiance than the one demanded by the government.

The Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin tried to abolish the holiday.

Hitler and the Nazis realized that the holiday was too deeply embedded in the German culture and so, rather than abolishing it, they tried to co-opt it. Christian Christmas carols were banished from schools and replaced with Nazi ones. "Silent Night," for example, was rewritten to eliminate the baby Jesus and replace him with Hitler. Swastikas were suggested as suitable Christmas tree ornaments.

Pagan symbols and stories were introduced by government propaganda, and an attempt was made to say that the winter solstice, Dec. 21, was the reason for the season.

Q: What was the Black Christmas movement, and how did it lead to the creation of Kwanzaa?

A: The civil rights movements and the black consciousness drives in the 1960s and 1970s produced the notion of a "Black Christmas," wherein the holiday would celebrate unique African-American features.

Thus, Jesse Jackson proposed a young, hip, black "Soul Santa" from the "Soul Pole," and Ron Karenga presented his black nationalist group US with the idea of a replacement for the white man’s holiday: Kwanzaa, a syncretic cultural invention that purported to transmit African values and symbols.

Q: How has the life of the department store Santa changed in recent years?

A: It’s become harder. The stresses facing the men in the red suits are piling up. Charges of sexual harassment are now part of the challenges they face and must be countered with police background checks, fingerprinting and liability insurance.

Fear of accusations of pedophilia mean that children are now seated beside him on chairs rather than his lap.

Children whose parents are absent in the military, or who are abusive or ill, bring emotional requests that Santas find taxing, leading some to file for compensation for job-related depression.

The traditional cry of "Ho, ho, ho!" has had to be replaced with "Ha, ha, ha!" lest sensitive ears hear a derogatory term for prostitutes, or be frightened by a deep voice.

Q: The Ebenezer Awards are given to the "person responsible for the silliest affront to Christmas." Given all your research, to whom would you award an Ebenezer?

A: There are so many outrages committed in the name of "inclusion" or political correctness at Christmas that it is hard to know where to start.

There is the British professor who demands more female "snow persons"; the parents who objected to a school’s "Giving Tree" where students would bring mittens for the poor; a tree was too much a Christian symbol, and so it had to be replaced with "the Giving Counter."

There was the poor lad who showed up at a school costume party dressed as Santa Claus and was refused entrance by the principal on the grounds that this violated the separation of church and state.

But for sheer obtuseness, I would give the award to the Chicago official who refused to let the producers of a movie called "The Nativity Story" set up a booth in the city’s popular Christmas fair, the Christkindl Market. "Christkindl" means "Christ Child."

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.