It’s not actually a tradition as old as Christmas itself, it just feels that way.
Every year, as December 25 approaches, certain groups of people take issue with those who say “happy holidays”, “season’s greetings” or some variant thereof.
So how did this seasonal controversy come about, and how does it manifest itself?
What was the original intention behind phrases like ‘Happy Holidays’?
Initially, the phrase “Happy Holidays” was adopted either as a way of avoiding offence, or as a catch-all to include other celebrations like New Year, and other religions’ winter festivals - like Hannukah - along with Christmas.
The phrase can be traced at least as far back as 1863, and by the 1930s and 1940s was commonly – and uncontroversially – being used in advertising campaigns.
But in recent decades what was intended as a neutral or inclusive choice of words has become increasingly political.
Why do some people object to Happy Holidays and phrases like it?
Some dislike what they see as an attempt at secularisation: they see it as ‘taking the Christ out of Christmas.’
Some are proud to hate what they call “political correctness gone mad”, often associating it with the kind of “loony left” initiatives of councils who in the Eighties were pilloried for banning things like Baa Baa Black Sheep – even though no council ever did ban the nursey rhyme.
And it has become more and more common for some or all of these objections to be bundled together in complaints about a perceived “War on Christmas”.
How did the “War on Christmas” backlash start?
Possibly with Fox News in 2005. That was the year when John Gibson, radio talk show host, and at the time anchor of The Big Story on Fox News, published a book entitled: The War On Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.
In this narrative, the phrase “happy holidays” was no longer as innocent as some believed. Instead, it was portrayed as an act of liberal aggression.
The message was enthusiastically adopted by fellow Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly. Who repeated it pretty much every year.
What happened during “The War on Christmas”?
For US conservatives, especially those on the evangelical right-wing - if the liberals were allowed to win the War on Christmas, who knew what fresh hell they would unleash next?
“They say the next step after saying ‘Happy Holidays’ is abortion on demand and euthanasia,” Dan Cassino, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, told the New York Times in 2016. “That’s a hell of a slippery slope, but that’s the argument being made.”
And by 2016 - in what is far from the only example of synergy between the man who is now US president and Fox News - Donald Trump was capitalising on those conservative fears during his presidential election campaign.
During rallies he repeatedly promised to end the ‘War on Christmas’, and in office he announced victory for the conservative backlash by declaring, “We can say Merry Christmas again”.
And how are some Trump organisations saying “Merry Christmas” this year?
The home page of the online Trump Store – “Experience the World of Trump” – features a photo of Christmas tree decorations and presents, all arranged around the message: “Holiday gift guide, shop now”.
So, arguably, pretty much “happy holidays”.
What other attempts at festive inclusivity have angered right-wing commentators?
One of the most widely remembered is Birmingham City Council’s creation of ‘Winterval’.
The move, by the local authority in charge of England’s second city, was portrayed as an attempt to replace Christmas with a wholly artificial secular festival called Winterval. It was immediately condemned as “political correctness gone mad”.
When the council repeated Winterval in 1998, the Right Reverend Mark Santer, the perhaps aptly named Bishop of Birmingham, publicly mocked it as a clumsy replacement of Christmas and wondered whether Christianity was being “censored”.
In fact, however, the council’s original Winterval brochure included things like pictures of angels, and details of a Christmas carol concert. And mention of the word Christmas.
Mike Chubb, the city council’s head of events at the time, did explain that “Quite simply, we needed a vehicle which could cover the marketing of a whole season of events…Diwali (festival of Lights), Christmas lights switch on, BBC Children in Need, Aston Hall by Candlelight, Chinese New year, New Year’s Eve etc. Also a season that included theatre shows and open air ice rink, Frankfurt open air Christmas market and the Christmas seasonal retail offer.”
Mr Chubb added: “Political correctness was never the reasoning behind Winterval, but yes it was intended to be inclusive (which is no bad thing to my mind).”
But despite such explanations, the word “Winterval” became fixed in the national consciousness as a kind of shorthand for heavy-handed political correctness.
Nearly a decade after Winterval was first mooted, a weary Birmingham City Council press officer was telling a Guardian reporter: “We get this every year. It just depends how many rogue journalists you get in any given year. We tell them it's bollocks, but it doesn't seem to make much difference.”
This article was originally published on 25 December 2018
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