WASHINGTON -- In 2005 the House of Representatives struck a mighty blow against those insidious secular busybodies when lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to affirm the right of Americans to enjoy the trappings of Christmas.
A resolution by Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) stated that the House "strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas" and supports Christmas symbols and traditions.
"Christmas has been declared politically incorrect," Davis lamented that December on the House floor, pointing to retailers with "Season's Greetings" signs instead of Christmas ones. "America's favorite holiday is being twisted being recognition. The push towards a neutered 'holiday' season is stronger than ever so that no one can be even the slightest bit offended."
In the end, few stuck up for the "neutered holiday season." Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) mocked the resolution with a riff on "The Night Before Christmas." "We will pretend Christmas is under attack, hold a vote to save it, then pat ourselves on the back," Dingell said. "'Silent Night,' 'First Noel,' 'Away in the Manger' -- wake up, Congress, they're in no danger."
Then-Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) pointed out that many more people had died in the Iraq War than in the War on Christmas.
But the Davis measure passed overwhelmingly, 401-22, before the Senate ignored it.
It was the apex of the so-called War On Christmas -- the politi-cultural, made-for-cable-news back-and-forth that commences every holiday season, including the current one. The best 2013 has come up with so far is a book by former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the declaration by Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D) that the ceremonial tree in the State House would be a "Christmas Tree."
That the "war" has de-escalated so much since that 2005 vote suggests the political culture has more or less moved on. At its peak, it was a dominant seasonal thread that ensnared, encouraged and frustrated Republicans, Democrats and future presidential candidates alike.
The War on Christmas -- whose history is well documented, most notably in 2005 by Salon's Michelle Goldberg --
was first waged, ironically, by Puritans who considered the merrymaking to be a pagan tradition. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony actually canceled Christmas in the 17th Century.
"From 1659 to 1681, anyone caught celebrating Christmas in the colony would be fined five shillings," Rachel N. Schnepper of Washington and Lee University wrote in The New York Times last year on the seventh anniversary of the Davis resolution.
"So the next time someone maintains that they are defending traditional American values by denouncing the War on Christmas," Schnepper wrote, "remind them of our 17th-century Puritan forefathers who refused to condone any celebration or even observance of the holiday."
The latest skirmish in the war, however, took place primarily during the '00s. According to a Lexis-Nexis search, the first mention of a "War on Christmas" or "War Against Christmas" came in 2001, when conservative columnist Michael Medved warned that "busy bureaucrats across the country can find nothing better to do with their time than make war on Christmas."
It was a rabbi, of all people, who gave the concept a big, early boost. Writing for Human Events in 2002, Rabbi Aryeh Spero pledged his appreciation for the Christian holiday while warning that the civil liberties group ACLU had waged a "war against Christmas."
"I remember writing that piece, and that was at a time when I think it was the beginning of department stores notifying their employees that they shouldn't say 'Merry Christmas' because it was offensive to people, but should rather say 'Happy Holidays.' I thought that was rather trite," Spero told HuffPost recently. "A lot of people who do shop in December are doing it because it is Christmas. Why not wish them Happy Christmas? People wish me 'Happy Chanukah,' I don't find it offensive ... I thought it was important coming from a Jewish person, especially a rabbi, to say that."
Soon enough, the war was in its "shock and awe" phase. Conservative commentator John Gibson wrote the book The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought, which was promoted heavily on Fox News. (Spero said that Gibson called him for input on the book.) The network's mainstay, Bill O'Reilly, pushed the cause relentlessly, too.
"All over the country, Christmas is taking flak," O'Reilly said in his earliest episode devoted to the issue, in 2004. "In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg unveiled the 'holiday tree,' and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores -- that's Macy's -- have done away with the Christmas greeting 'Merry Christmas.'"
Rival cable outlets tried to counter-balance the coverage by portraying the concept as a political ploy designed to boost sales and ratings. But few politicians wanted their Christmas bonafides questioned. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) suggested that the U.S. Capitol architect use the label "Christmas Tree" rather than "Holiday Tree" for that year's festivities. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) sent out a press statement touting her willingness to stand up "to the grinches trying to steal Christmas."
"It is tragic that many individuals and institutions are trying to secularize Christmas into an overly-commercialized and generic holiday that represents nothing at all," the Foxx said.
Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas) decried a political culture that "all but treats Christianity like some second-rate superstition."
Democrats weren't content to sit on the sidelines. At the time of the resolution vote, they gathered before the Capitol Christmas tree to push for a hike of the minimum wage.
"Democrats believe that Congress should act on the true meaning of Christmas -- hope, generosity and goodwill toward others," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). "Unfortunately, our Republican friends seem to have forgotten the meaning of Christmas."
By 2006, the fever hadn't worn off. That year, a young senator named Barack Obama angered liberals by explaining how he thought religion played an important role in the public square. His comments, critics argued, gave credence to the idea that Democrats were somehow hostile to the holiday and religious people.
Seven years and two presidential elections later, the fever seems to have faded, and the passion of those who fought the early battles has diminished.
"I think it is better today," said Spero. "I think people are not as uptight. If you say 'Merry Christmas,' that's fine. I just wish people would be a little less uptight about this. A nativity scene is not offensive. It won't destroy our Constitution."