Washington Post, December 21, 2016
Some things Donald Trump says enrage me, while others get under my skin. The pronouncement that does both is his regular claim that until he prevailed, Americans were not free to say “merry Christmas” to each other.
He was at it again last week in West Allis, Wis., during his Watch-Me-Divide-The-Country-Further Victory Tour. Trump declared: “So when I started 18 months ago, I told my first crowd in Wisconsin that we are going to come back here someday and we are going to say merry Christmas again. Merry Christmas. So, merry Christmas everyone.”
Here’s what bothers me: Long before Trump came along we were entirely free to say “merry Christmas” to each other. Our political leaders could say it, too.
On her MSNBC program last weekend, my friend Joy Reid demonstrated that President Obama was no Christmas-hating guy trying to hide remembrances of the birth of Jesus Christ behind some noxious wall of secularism. She showed not one but 20 moments when the president said the words “merry Christmas.”
As for me, I’ve never felt the least reluctant to say “merry Christmas” — as long as I know the person I’m talking to is a Christian who observes the holiday.
And there’s the rub. We all know that Trump has simply picked up the “war on Christmas” theme driven annually by conservative media. Like so much else these days, this “issue” divides us along partisan lines. A PRRI survey released this week found that Republicans, by more than 2 to 1, want stores and businesses to greet customers with “Merry Christmas.” Democrats, by a similar margin, prefer them to say “Happy holidays.”
The political commotion around Christmas is partly a response to litigation over what religious freedom demands when it comes to governments setting up displays in public places at this time of year. There are legitimate and heartfelt differences of opinion over what the First Amendment tells us about this.
But as is his way, Trump sidesteps all the complexities. He reduces everything to whether or not we can say “merry Christmas” and folds this into his attack on “political correctness.” The political correctness police are instantly transformed into a phalanx of heathen Scrooges and Grinches.
It doesn’t stop Trump that “happy holidays” is popular among retailers not because some Big Brother liberals (let alone government) are telling them to say it. They simply want to sell to a broad group of consumers, many of whom aren’t Christian.
If Trump wanted to criticize the commercialization of Christmas, he might start an interesting conversation. But a man who sells his brand for a living probably doesn’t want to go there.
What Trump is demeaning is the simple decency that lies behind the decision to avoid saying “merry Christmas” to non-Christians. I learned about this not from secular liberals, but from my very devotedly Catholic (and Republican) parents. We lived in the most Jewish neighborhood of our overwhelmingly Catholic town. The idea that you can be, simultaneously, part of a majority and a minority is a common experience in our open and religiously diverse society.
My parents taught my sister and me back in the 1950s, long before anyone had heard of “political correctness,” that we should respect our Jewish friends and neighbors by saying “happy holidays” or “happy Hanukkah.” We proudly celebrated Christmas and were one of the few houses on our block with Christmas lights. But we also wanted to honor the religious commitments of our Jewish friends and neighbors, just as they honored ours.
It was a way of taking everyone’s religion very seriously. My late mom had many conversations over tea and coffee about the nature of God with Emma Dondis, our next-door neighbor. Mrs. Dondis, as we called her, was a devout Jew who cared a great deal about faith, what it meant and what it required. (I also liked her because she and her son Eli always let us use their basketball hoop.)
As it happens, I love Christmas and started writing this column as we were setting up our tree and the manger recalling the place where a Savior was born when there was no room at the inn. To all who honor Christmas, may this one be very merry.
And in a season of peace and good will to all, may Donald Trump enjoy a moment of serene tranquility and reflection. Since he does not strike me or most others as particularly religious, I will err on the cautious side and wish him the very happiest of holidays.
This op-ed was originally published in the Washington Post.