First, I’d like to thank the folks who commented on my first, haphazard post-Christmas post for reading and thinking with me. The following (still haphazard) reflections will attempt to respond to some of those comments.
When I talk about a group’s appropriating a common symbol and making it a shibboleth for one faction, I don’t necessarily need to assert an all-encompassing conspiracy or even to attribute agency to any one strategist. For instance, when the Qumran community (the Dead Sea Scrolls folks) appropriated the biblical prophets and made them weapons in polemics against the Jerusalem hierarchy, I don’t necessarily think that the council got together in some sort of “strategy meeting” to vote on using the prophets, and I don’t think that the intellectual architects of the War Scroll or the Temple Scroll had some cynical plan in mind to win political points. In that case I think that the folks who claimed the prophets genuinely believed the prophets to be on their side, and the Sadduccee rejection of the prophets as Scripture must have had at least something to do with an analogous rejection of Pharisaical and Qumranish politics.
In the case of the so-called “War on Christmas,” I imagine that, were one to trace its origins, one would find not a Washington think-tank but nostalgic old-timers who remember when “Merry Christmas,” a bit of benign cultural carry-over from the old English ways (where John Lennon and Harry Potter alike can muse about Christmas) that seemed to be fading into the past as retailers (who, after all, are all about making money) began to forge a more specifically American neutrality. (Christmas has been around for hundreds of years in England, whereas in America nothing has been around for hundreds of years.)
I do think that when mass-media personalities grab hold of those old-timers’ nostalgia and turn it into something akin to the “Freedom Fries” embarrassment, one can assert more strongly that something cynical is going but still need not posit a global conspiracy.
On the other hand, I think that most calls of “Merry Christmas” are in fact friendly or at worst benign. I don’t think that the “enemies” in the so-called “War on Christmas” are Muslims and Hindus so much as Democrats. (I’m fairly certain that the same was the case with “Freedom Fries.”) The political logic there is, I think, cynical and cyclical: One dares those who don’t celebrate Christmas to take offense by means of more and more public assertions about “Judeo-Christian traditions” and such, taking the traditions away from an inherited Britishness and recasting them as vestiges of a former, more pristine “Christian America” that may or may not have at some point existed. The polarizing effect of such appropriation forces elected officials, who in fact have to live with both camps of culture warriors, to take safeguards against litigation (more often at the hands of Democrats than Hindus). Then one points to the safeguards, says something about “political correctness” (which nobody, in my experience, can define well), and increases the air of paranoia, playing to the fears of those who remember fondly the “old days” before the instigation began. In the meantime, those of us who don’t have a horse in the culture wars race are forced to live in a world in which “Merry Christmas” is no longer something from a Dickens story, friendly enough and contentless enough not to threaten, but now the code word of a certain faction, something akin to a self-apellation as “pro-family” (who isn’t?) or “values voter.”
So to cut off this rambling (and still haphazard) reflection, I’d say that ninety-nine out of a hundred wishes of “Merry Christmas” have nothing to do with rendering Hindus “other,” and ninety-nine out of a hundred wishes of “Happy Holidays” are not trying to obliterate American Christianity. The sadness that inspired the first post has less to do with most folks and more to do with the poisonous appropriation and negation that some folks are willing to undertake for the sake of controlling Congress.