Merry Christmas to All (Even You, Fox News!)

On Nantucket, the Christmas season begins in earnest on the day after Thanksgiving. Sometime before sundown, Main Street is closed off to automobiles and people gather in front of the old bank building at the top of the street. At precisely 5 p.m., a switch is thrown to light the trees that line the town streets. Then the kids from the high school lead everyone in singing traditional carols. This charming event, which offends nobody, is especially popular with young families.

Thanks to the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the tree-lighting and caroling, Christmas is alive and well on the Massachusetts island, summer home to the family of Senator John Kerry and just across the sound from the Kennedy compound. To my knowledge, none of the liberal elitists on the island has tried to abolish the holiday festivities in the public square.

It’s just a single example, of course, from just one little place. But if the birth of Jesus can be celebrated on Nantucket without undue controversy, then perhaps the Fox News Channel’s blowhards and political preachers have exaggerated (or even invented) the notion of a “war on Christmas” for their own purposes.

Now why would they do that?

Claiming to defend Christmas from the dark forces of secularism is an easy way to separate the rubes from their money, either by soliciting contributions or by selling books about the awful “conspiracy” against the national holiday. Jerry Falwell has been cashing in on this multimillion-dollar business for a long time, and others like James Dobson have joined him. The booty is substantial, and even a television personality like Bill O’Reilly—despite his own somewhat compromised adherence to Christian morals—is eligible for the crusade.

And don’t discount the political reasons behind the hype. At a moment when the nation is turning away from the Bush Presidency and pondering the corruption of Congress, this seasonal crisis provides an urgently needed distraction. Forget about the war in Iraq and the lobbyists who are buying the government. The “liberals” are trying to abolish Christmas!

Like many paranoid fantasies, this Fox fraud is not entirely imaginary, although the quality of reporting on that network dictates extreme caution about accepting its version of events. On a few occasions, officials concerned about trespassing the boundary between church and state, and managers worried about offending customers who don’t happen to share the Christian faith, have displayed excessive zeal.

Yet many of the examples of enforced secularism cited by the Christmas warriors have turned out to be apocryphal. Contrary to Internet rumor, the U.S. Postal Service still sells Christmas stamps (as well as stamps marking Jewish Hanukkah and Muslim Eid). In Dodgeville, Wis., where one of Mr. Falwell’s legal minions has publicly threatened to sue the school district for discriminating against Christmas carols, the accusation turned out to be wrong.

According to the Associated Press, which investigated the Falwell charges, the district’s Christmas program includes such traditional songs as “Angels We Have Heard on High.” For anyone who may have forgotten, the lyrics glorify God (in Latin!) and pay homage to “Christ the Lord, the newborn King.”

It’s a lovely tune that did no harm to me or the other little Jewish kids who sang it in our public elementary school years ago. Nor did it harm our Christian friends to learn a couple of songs about Hanukkah. In fact, sharing the holiday music and traditions of various faiths might even be a worthwhile agenda for public schools—so long as the government enforces no religious observance and favors no faith above others.

Understandably, many devout Christians are troubled by the commercialization of their holiday, but that is scarcely the fault of the American Civil Liberties Union. Requiring the employees of Wal-Mart to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” as the Fox phonies insist, won’t do much to restore the sacred character of the day.

Unfortunately, what seems to bother the more rabid Christmas crusaders is akin to what inflamed Henry Ford, the industrialist and amateur Nazi, back when he first publicized the plot against Christmas during the 1920’s: They still seethe with resentment of those who differ from them. (Ford forthrightly blamed the problem on the Jews, while today’s crusaders denounce liberals, many of whom happen to be Jewish.) While Christianity is, as ever, the dominant religion in America, this isn’t a “Christian nation” in the sense that it was a hundred years ago. The faith of the majority is no longer imposed so carelessly on the many minorities who believe otherwise.

Honoring old traditions, respecting newer arrivals and maintaining constitutional freedoms is often difficult. The important thing is to seek that balance in a spirit of kindness and decency rather than promoting anger and suspicion. For those who profess to honor the prince of peace, particularly at this time of year, that ought to be obvious. Merry Christmas to All  (Even You, Fox News!)