Christian holidays are a political issue in the U.S. Why do some people just wish “Merry Christmas," while others strictly stick to ”Happy holidays"?

One can truly rely on the Glen Echo Fire Department. Here, on the outskirts of Washington, a Christmas postcard from the local fire department lies in the mailbox every year in mid-December. It shows a firehouse with a brick-red front and a snow-covered roof with photogenic icicles on its edge. This might not reflect reality locally because there is rarely any snow in and around Washington in December, but the picture looks good anyway. The whole thing is combined with a request to not forget to donate to the voluntary fire brigade: ”Your dollars enable us to be there for you. Wishing you a happy and safe holiday season.“

“Happy holidays!“ – with this, anyone can feel they have been addressed, and that is why America's stores are moving toward this greeting. Most of the time, it is not possible to tell a person's faith, and so shop assistants are instructed to just call “Happy holidays" after their customers. That can never be wrong. It doesn't matter whether customers are now in an Advent fever, celebrating Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, or Kwanzaa, an African American festival, which was started in 1966 and which also involves lighting candles: It always fits.

Only the Christian conservative part of America does not agree, and so it complains about the diktat of political correctness, about the all-purpose “Happy holidays,“ used just so that no one might get offended by a “Merry Christmas."

Orgies of Fairy Lights

Christmas is the time when the U.S. celebrates genuine orgies of fairy lights. Those are especially abundant on 34th Street in Baltimore, where terraced houses are literally enveloped from top to bottom in garlands of light bulbs which not only depict the usual reindeer, sleds and snowmen, but in one case, also a crab, the unofficial heraldic animal of Maryland.

But Christmas is also the time for bizarre word battles, because every year a war breaks out all over again, the "War on Christmas." Conservative television host Bill O'Reilly has marched on its front line for a long time, someone who made sure to spread his assertion that Christmas was “under siege“ like a battle cry among his fans.

During Christmas, O’Reilly has always been permitted to rail at the “Happy holidays” nuisance on his evening program which airs on the similarly conservative Fox News channel. He subsequently had to give up his show after he failed to disclose the fact that he paid five women a total of $13 million in hush money to avoid impending lawsuits based on charges of sexual assault.

O'Reilly once explained how the liberals wanted to turn Christmas into a secular feast because they were allegedly striving for a new America where there would be no space for a traditional Christmas. Five months prior to being dismissed, he solemnly declared that the war on Christmas was finally decided: the good guys won, because now, Donald Trump had taken over the issue.

Trumpish Christmas Trees

That was in December 2016, one month after the real estate tycoon's election. Trump had a stage in Wisconsin decorated with a long row of colorfully embellished Christmas trees, and celebrated his triumph. Not only at the ballot box, but also in the Christmas battle. Eighteen months earlier, candidate Trump had promised at his first rally in Wisconsin that “we are going to come back here someday and we are going to say merry Christmas again.”

Now, the president flies to the region at least once every December to celebrate a Christmas rally. This year he was in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he did not strike a harmonious tone, but instead railed at an opposition so eaten up by jealousy that they are trying to remove him from his office.

Christmas in America can be a very serious, very controversial matter. There is the American Family Association, situated in Tupelo, Mississippi, which sees itself as a watchdog on the issue. It observes which chain of stores is literally “naughty" and which is ”nice," which one recognizes Christmas appropriately in its advertisements and which one is neglecting the Christian part.

Starbucks is regularly scolded because their pre-Christmas cups are way too generic for the taste of the evangelistic watchmen. As another example, people said that Walgreens “may use ‘Christmas’ sparingly in a single or unique product description, but as [a] compan[y], do[es] not recognize it.“

But the “Happy holidays” community sometimes goes too far as well. Twelve months ago, Jennifer Sinclair, principal of Manchester Elementary School in Elkhorn, Nebraska, prohibited anything that suggested Christmas at her school. This included Santa Claus, reindeer, elves, Christmas trees, Christmas melodies, Christmas movies and anything that was red and green. Also on the list: red and white candy canes. Their curved shape was said to suggest the “J" in Jesus. Sinclair gave the green light for polar bears, penguins, yetis, sleds, hot cocoa and Olaf, the talking snowman from the animated film “Frozen.” After an avalanche of parental protests, the list was scrapped and the principal transferred.

And 7-Branched Candle Holders

Years ago, the airport administration in Seattle had Christmas trees removed from the terminals because of rumors that Orthodox Jews might sue. Instead of asking the potential litigants if that was true, they simply let the fir trees vanish. Thereupon the Jews made clear that they had been misunderstood: There was nothing objectionable about the trees; they just wanted to have a menorah, the 7-branched candle holder, placed next to it.

And then we have the ACLU, the civil liberties lighthouse of liberal America, calling for separation of state and religion. The ACLU had defended the rights of a prisoner who wanted to organize a Christmas prayer for the community. It was argued that, as long as the state itself didn't promote a certain faith, there should be no obstacle to such a prayer.

In the end, the fronts in the Christmas war have been more fluid than expected. This is especially so because most Americans see this only as a sham fight. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 32% prefer the phrase “Merry Christmas," while 15% prefer the innocuous “Happy holidays." A majority of 52% can live with either version.

The voluntary fire brigade of Glen Echo is similarly pragmatic, by the way. As a small concession to the “Merry Christmas” faction, the back of its Christmas card reads: “Santa Claus is coming!“