Sure, it's easy to laugh at the idea that Bill O'Reilly's troops will win the War on Christmas when "Merry Christmas" replaces "Happy holidays" on the lips of every salesperson and fast-food server in America. But one front in this longest-running U.S. war (longer, now, than Afghanistan) has already seen a major breakthrough, and that's among Christmas cards: These days, it's almost impossible to find any ironic cards on the subject, no matter where you look.
You may remember that kind of card. Since at least the mid-'80s, my husband, who is a total chortling Khristmas kringle, used to come home this time of year snickering over the discovery of a completely inappropriate holiday greeting, one that mocked the sentimental Sundblom Santas of his youth. One year it was a card showing the neon sign at a Howard Johnson's with nine letters shot out so it spelled "Ho Ho." Then it was a card printed with Vincent Van Gogh's famous grey self-portrait but wearing a Santa hat; when you opened it up you found a plastic baggie holding a small plaster ear, with the message, "Merry Christmas and Happy New Ear."
His favorite was called "Drive-By Santa," and showed a sleigh from behind rushing down an urban street lined with broken windows, with Santa hurling gaily wrapped packages through every one as he raced away.
He first noticed that these sort of cards went MIA after 9/11. Suddenly, he says, in otherwise arty-smarty card shops across Manhattan, there was nothing but the usual treacly images--snowy scenes in the mountains, Norman Rockwell views of New England towns, or Old Masterish paintings of the Holy Family or the Three Kings. "All the cartoon cards seemed to take their cues from the stop-action figures in Burl Ives' Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," he moans. "Now, the best you can do, are Museum of Modern Art-type cards printed in bold, bright colors with abstract images of stars or snowmen."
The O'Reillys and Glenn Becks of the world may be comic crusaders to some of us, but they're apparently scaring the bejesus out of card companies, buyers, and distributors--almost no one is putting out anything that could be interpreted as even vaguely un-sentimental about Christmas anymore.
But the imposition of a conforming norm for Christmas cards is probably the least of it. Christian soldiers have already gone a long way to transforming their trees into crosses. For $299.99, Boss Creations of Nashville will sell you a "CHRIST-mas tree," whose trunk is a big plastic Christian cross, expandable to 7.5 feet high, the better to bash secular humanists with. As Fox & Friends' Gretchen Carlson said to Boss founder Marsha Boggs, "This is going to irk all those people out there who want to call it the holiday tree."
Gloat though she may, these War on Christmas antics are less irksome than smirksome. (See Colbert's latest "Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude.") And absurd, because Christmas--coming immediately after the winter solstice, when the days begin to grow long and warm again--has been celebrated with gift-giving, good cheer, and roast beast long before there was a Christian religion.
For hundreds of years before Christ, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia during what has become Christmas, carrying candles to parties and giving gifts to one and all (silver was the preferred material). It was more like Mardi Gras, a topsy turvy holiday, in which masters served slaves and irreverent Santas would have felt at home. The Greeks, the Norse, and other cultures around the world celebrated the winter solstice, too, and almost always as a secular holiday, dedicated to strong spirits and dispelling the midwinter gloom. In fact, in the fourth century Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the date of Christ's birth (though no one knows in what season he was really born) specifically to push these immensely popular traditions out of people's minds--and the pagan joy of the thing has been getting quashed ever since.