In 2005, Fox News anchor John Gibson followed up on Hating America: The New World Sport with The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Naturally, Gibson went on the O’Reilly Factor to promote his book, and just like that, the War on Christmas went from fringe argument to mainstream talking point. The evidence was everywhere in public life: Schools went on winter break rather than Christmas break, Amazon wished you happy holidays rather than Merry Christmas. It was a vast plot to “get religion out,” as O’Reilly summarized, “then you can pass secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, and gay marriage.”
In a new analysis at Harvard Business Review, Fairleigh Dickinson University political psychologist Dan Cassino unpacks just how successful the campaign has been. He reports that in December 2005, 41 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll said they preferred to hear “Happy Holidays” and 56 percent for “Merry Christmas.” Then, in 2015, another poll found that 25 percent of respondents wanted the “Happy Holidays” — and 65 preferred “Merry Christmas,” possibly spurred on by Sarah Palin’s contribution to the genre, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas.
The plot thickens as you get more granular with the data. Cassino finds that for people who say they “seldom go to church,” watching Fox News is linked with a five-point increase in agreeing that there’s a war on Christmas. For people who say they never enter a house of prayer, it’s a ten-point swing. “In effect, watching Fox News makes less religious people as concerned about secularization as those who go to church frequently,” he writes. “By making the ‘war on Christmas’ just one front in a general political conflict, Fox News has made its viewers, even those who normally wouldn’t be worried about religious issues, more likely to accept the war’s existence.”
The psychological effects at work here underscore how much people get their sense of the world built through the media they consume. It’s kind of like how Americans fear crime more in an era of historically low crime levels: When the images you see and the stories you click on are all about how horrifically violent everything is, that gets internalized over time, and your mental model of the world and the people who live in it gets skewed. Media scholars call it Mean World Syndrome, and it helps to explain how much ideological media (and outright fake news) guide the way their views construct their realities.
Christmas, then, has been turned into a seasonal front in an ongoing culture war. (This isn’t the first time; from 1659 to 1681, being caught celebrating Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony would run you a fine of five shillings.) The War on Christmas is part of the same narratives that have been standardized explanations for the rise of Trump and Trumpism: Foreigners and foreign influences are cutting ahead in line of good Christian folk. Not only are trade and technology taking their jobs, but secularism is taking their holiday tradition, too — at least in the form of a red Starbucks cup.