Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

A ‘War on Christmas’ Story

Who’s supposed to be waging this war? I have an idea.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Some maniac set fire to the Fox News Christmas tree this week. Fortunately, the perpetrator was tackled within seconds, the fire extinguished, and Fox News personalities were given an early Christmas gift of a fresh new outrage against which to fulminate. “It’s a tree that unites us,” explained a crestfallen Ainsley Earhardt. “It brings us together. It’s about the Christmas spirit. It is about the holiday season. It’s about Jesus. It’s about Hanukkah.” (Hanukkah was very definitely not about Jews joining in non-Jewish religious observances, but never mind.)

Tucker Carlson had a different, much darker interpretation. “Torching Christmas trees,” he reasoned, “is an attack on Christianity” — not on all religions but on one religion. Having deemed the attack a “hate crime,” he proceeded to reveal a shocking fact: The Biden Justice Department has no statistics to tabulate the number of Christmas-tree burnings that occur in the United States. “The DOJ can tell you precisely how many Qurans were burned in the United States last year, but they don’t keep track of Christmas trees,” he complained. “Why is that? Well, because they could care less.”

I would hypothesize that the DOJ’s failure to monitor Christmas-tree attacks is explained by their extreme rarity and the lack of any connection to a hate-crime motive. Indeed, in this case, police said the incident “didn’t appear to be premeditated or politically motivated” — which is to say, it was not a hate crime at all.

Carlson’s dark insinuation that the Biden DOJ refuses to monitor Christmas-tree burnings implies, absurdly, that the department used to keep track of such incidents under Donald Trump before the liberal Merrick Garland regime decided to start covering up this spate of hate crimes.

But what matters to Carlson is not the facts but the story they purport to reveal: that the liberal authorities are solely concerned with the rights of religious minorities while refusing to lift a finger to stop the ongoing “War on Christmas.”

Most liberals consider the conservative War on Christmas trope so ridiculous on its face that it hardly merits analysis. After all, the ubiquity of Christmas in American life is self-evident; everybody has heard the cliché that Christmas decorations, music, sales, movies, and so on begin earlier every year. But conservatives do not see this as a joke. The lawyer and self-styled intellectual Hugh Hewitt earnestly told Trump in an interview this week that he had been “the best president for Christmas. He saved Christmas,” prompting Trump to repeat his boast that he had indeed preserved the holiday from extinction (“You know, when I was running, 2016, Christmas was, like, you couldn’t say the word,” he said. “I said the word. And I said we’re going to bring back Christmas, and we’re going to be saying ‘Christmas’”).

The War on Christmas has had a place in Trump’s regular spiel since his candidacy began. Indeed, he’s the first major Republican candidate to make this a part of his message. It’s an idea easily laughed off as shtick, but it needs to be taken seriously as an important part of modern reactionary thought.

I grew up in suburban Detroit. My parents were drawn to what was reputed to be the “best” public-school system in the state and moved into one of the new subdivisions that were breaking ground in the 1970s. When my brother and I started elementary school, the curriculum in December was so focused on Christmas our parents pulled us out of school for most of the month. But as more Jews moved into the district — Jews in Detroit tend to clump together — the school’s Christmas celebrations gave way to more restrained, nonsectarian “holiday” observances with gestures of inclusivity, like a Jewish mom bringing in a plate of lukewarm latkes and showing the children how to spin a dreidel.

By the time I reached high school, this had produced a backlash strong enough to inspire the creation of a grassroots group formed to reverse it. The leader of this group was Ronna Romney, whose daughter (also named Ronna) attended my district’s other high school, on the side of town that remained largely untouched by the Jewish influx. (Her sister-in-law Terry Rakolta attained national fame a couple of years later for crusading against the vulgarity of the hit Fox show “Married … With Children.”)

Ronna had married a son of former Michigan governor George Romney. I remember hearing adults say that George, known as a moderate, did not approve of Ronna’s activism. If there was a schism in the family, it has certainly continued generationally: Mitt Romney is now the leading anti-Trump Republican in the country, while the younger Ronna, now Ronna McDaniel, dropped the Romney name to secure Trump’s support to lead the Republican National Committee.

Romney’s group was called Taxpayers Organized to Restore Our Cultural Heritage, or TORCH. Whether the acronym was chosen deliberately to create an air of menace, I don’t know. I do recall that nobody — nobody Jewish, anyway — believed the C really stood for cultural.

My clearest memory of this episode, which took place more than 30 years ago, is anchored around a climactic school-board meeting held in my high-school library. One community member supporting TORCH compared the secularization of public schools to the communist system he had fled. Another supporter warned darkly of “certain groups” that had gained “undue influence” over the school system. Toward the end, a Christian minister or priest — I don’t remember which denomination — dispensed with the pretense that TORCH had any legitimate procedural complaint and delivered a moving speech about religious tolerance and pluralism. At the end, after the school board voted down TORCH’s proposal, my mother approached him to express her gratitude. But she couldn’t get any words out and just started sobbing, and he embraced her.

In the decades since this happened, I have reflected on this episode many times and tried to understand it with more maturity than I had at my disposal as a teenager. I’m sure many people in the community had motives other than anti-Semitism for lamenting the loss of traditions they cherished and were forced to give up because a bunch of newcomers had moved in. To feel discomfort when your community changes is a common sentiment from which no group is immune.

The American passion for Christmas is deeply bound up in nostalgia. That can be, and usually is, a beautiful, perfectly innocent emotion connected to family and childhood celebrations. The likes of Trump and Carlson have figured out that it can also be a powerful lever to pry open resentment toward religious minorities and the rather minor accommodations the majority has to make toward them.

One of TORCH’s arguments, which the Christian right has used many times, is that schools or the government should celebrate Christmas because it is “our national holiday.” Carlson’s monologue has the benefit of stripping away this pretext, describing the Christmas tree as a symbol specifically of the Christian religion. I doubt the contradiction bothers any of them, but at least it’s clarifying.

Jews have never been at the top of the list of those most threatened by the ugliness Trump unleashed. But if you think the Jews face no risk, you’re unable to see what lies about an inch below the surface. You do know who the enemy is that is supposedly waging the War on Christmas, right?

A ‘War on Christmas’ Story