It’s the most wonderful fight of the year: the annual tussle between Christians who bravely defend “Merry Christmas” and the godless liberals who want to impose “Happy Holidays” on all of us. Or so the story goes on talk radio. But while President Trump promises to restore “Merry Christmas” to American life, those who insist on using the phrase as a sort of flag for conservative Christian culture misunderstand its history. Rather than religious, its origins are secular and commercial, even profane.
For most of its history, the Christian church regarded Christmas as a small event on its calendar not requiring much observation. Puritans in England and later the American colonies went one step further, banning the holiday altogether since they could find no biblical support for celebrating the day. As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum has explained, the Puritans imposed fines on anyone caught celebrating and designated Christmas as a working day. These strict rules were necessary since so many men and women engaged in the drunken carousing that accompanied winter solstice festivities, an ancient tradition that the church had failed to stamp out when it appropriated Dec. 25 as a Christian holiday.
In this setting, “Merry Christmas” was born. The greeting was an act of revelry and religious rebellion, something the uncouth masses shouted as they traveled in drunken mobs. Troubled by such behavior, the New Haven Gazette in 1786 decried the “common salutation” of “Merry Christmas.” “So merry at Christmas are some,” the paper lamented, “they destroy their health by disease, and by trouble their joy.”
What the church could not contain, capitalism co-opted. As retailers, authors and artists in the 19th century invented a holiday of conspicuous consumption and family-centered celebrations, “Merry Christmas” became the favored slogan to sell the day. The first commercially produced Christmas card, created in 1843 in London, showed not the manger scene but a multi-generational family tossing back goblets of wine above a banner that read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” But the secular carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” performed by roving packs that demanded figgy pudding, probably did the most to popularize “Merry Christmas.”
Given the seemingly irreversible prominence of Christmas, churches gave up the argument. They began to emphasize the day’s religious meaning to their congregants and incorporate “Merry Christmas” into their vernacular. But observant Christians just as routinely wished each other “Happy holidays.” “Holiday” is a religious word, after all, derived from the Old English word for “holy day.” Plus, “Happy holidays” may indicate the entire Advent period, suggesting a more devout reverence for the season than “Merry Christmas.”
Concerns about hedonism increased in the 20th century as Christmas exploded in popularity. Christians worried that Americans, especially children, associated the holiday with department store gifts, and “Merry Christmas” with department store employees dressed up as Santa Claus. As a counter-measure, they pressured retailers in the 1940s and 1950s to “Put Christ Back in Christmas” by filling their stores with Nativity scenes and using religious imagery in advertisements. The Chicago Daily Tribune praised the campaign in 1952 for helping to “shift the trend in the importance of Christmas from the commercial to a more spiritual observance.”
That shift didn’t last long. In the second half of the 20th century, many department stores removed their explicitly Christian displays, which they thought might be off-putting to secular and non-Christian consumers. Less able to exert their influence than they had been in the religious heyday of midcentury, Christians pushed back by donning “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” lapel buttons and sweaters. These signaled to shop clerks who wished them a “Merry Christmas” that they understood the true meaning of the holiday — even as they hustled to get all their shopping done.
Just as “Jesus is the Reason” reached its peak in the early 1990s, however, Christians had to face a new outrage: Retailers abandoned “Merry Christmas” in favor of “Happy holidays.” As noted above, “Happy holidays” had a long history as a religious expression. But it had lost that association. It now represented a generic seasonal greeting tailored to a multicultural and pluralist nation. And coming as it did on the heels of a 1989 Supreme Court case declaring a Christmas display on public property unconstitutional, the move to “Happy holidays” struck many Christians as no less than a war on their faith. “Happy holidays” was galling because it seemed to expose the fact that Christians no longer occupied the center of American culture.
Bill O’Reilly and Fox News stoked the flames of cultural resentment, accusing “secular liberals” of trying to drive Christmas out of the public square. In just one five-day period in 2005, for example, the network ran 58 segments on the scourge of “Happy holidays” plaguing the nation’s office parties and malls.
It’s telling that so much of the modern battle over “Merry Christmas” has centered on retail. The Puritans barred the public celebration of Christmas to protect their religious lives; many Christians today worry their faith is being erased because salespersons won’t wish them a “Merry Christmas.” By engaging with retailers, Christians have acknowledged their preeminence in shaping public conceptions of Christmas. Whether stores feature pagan trees or Nativity scenes, they’re in control of the message. Whether or not “Merry Christmas” makes a comeback, the commercial realm, and not the church, is in charge.
Neil J. Young is author of “We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics.” He co-hosts the history podcast Past Present.