Donald Trump’s path to electoral victory was paved in part with a promise that Santa Claus might make: “We’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
Months before he stood on a stage in Orlando as president-elect last week — in front of 16 Christmas trees on a podium with a sign that said “Merry Christmas, USA” — Trump trained his focus not just on coal country and a wall along the Mexican border, but also on the employees of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.
“If I’m president, you’re going to see ‘Merry Christmas’ in department stores, believe me,” he said. “Believe me.”
And now it’s Christmastime, in the dawning days of Trump’s new America, and the question is: Retailers, will you start saying “Merry Christmas”?
“That’s ridiculous,” John Boiler said.
As the chief executive of 72andSunny, a Los Angeles ad agency that made Christmas ads this year for Target, Google, Comcast and Starbucks, Boiler is singlehandedly responsible for much of the corporate Christmas messaging in the United States.
Boiler doesn’t plan to heed Trump’s advice. Reams of sophisticated consumer research tell him that “Merry Christmas” is rarely the best way to sell the most stuff around the holidays.
“To say that you’re only going to recognize one segment of your audience to the exclusion of others is not only bad socially and culturally, it is bad economically. You’re limiting your audience and your customer base,” Boiler said. “You’re going to make the choice that is more inclusive — if you’re also into making the most money for your shareholders.”
Of course, most Americans’ preference for hearing “Merry Christmas” or not when they’re shopping has nothing to do with the stores’ bottom lines. The country’s debate over whether to say “Happy holidays,” which lumps in other winter festivals including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s — or to stick only to Christmas — is just as politically and culturally polarized as so many of our other impasses.
In a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute this month, 66 percent of Democrats said that stores and businesses should say “Happy holidays” out of respect for people of non-Christian faiths. Republicans said just the opposite: 67 percent of them said stores should not opt for a more inclusive greeting.
That left the country exactly split — 47 percent for “Happy holidays” and 46 percent for “Merry Christmas.”
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. Gerry Bowler, who just published his third book about the history of Christmas, said most Americans blithely said “Merry Christmas,” with perhaps a “season’s greetings” thrown in sometimes, for most of our country’s history.
U.S. presidents helped start the “happy holidays” trend by sending out annual holiday cards with nonreligious messages, Bowler said. The trend dates to Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, though “Merry Christmas” remained the cultural norm for decades longer.
But in the 1990s, Bowler said, “happy holidays” enjoyed a brief and happy reign, more or less uncontested as the country’s corporate greeting of choice. Public schools preached multiculturalism at their holiday concerts. Bill Clinton’s cards from the White House avoided “Merry Christmas,” just as Ronald Reagan’s had before him.
But then in 2004, a California group calling itself the Committee to Save Merry Christmas mounted a boycott of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s because the stores said “Happy holidays.” And the next year, Bill O’Reilly took up their cause and returned to it year after year on Fox News Channel. The “war on Christmas,” in O’Reilly’s words, was underway.
We’ve been doing battle ever since.
The concept of Christmas being targeted played right into the fears of many conservatives, already anxious about demographic shifts that made Christians less of a majority, and about policies that went against their values, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Many view themselves as persecuted in some ways in the public sphere. In a recent Pew poll, 21 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said evangelicals face “a lot” of discrimination — more than the number who said women, blacks, Hispanics or Jews face “a lot” of discrimination.
So being told they can’t share their commonplace Christmas greeting has come to feel like another assault. After O’Reilly and other Christmas defenders began waging battle, “Merry Christmas” started sounding again in some of the stores that had abandoned it.
“It seems to me that the pressure has succeeded in returning ‘Merry Christmas’ to the commercial sphere,” Bowler said.
He thinks Trump might have something to do with that in the future. “I think he can embolden those who are made shy about using it,” he said. “I think our natural desire to be polite has cowed a lot of people.”
Consolidation in the retail industry and competition from online shopping have sped up the disappearance of “Merry Christmas,” as regional department stores and small businesses closed up shop. The remaining mom-and-pop stores are more able to reflect the desires of their customers in their locales.
At Murphy’s Department Store in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the big hit item this season is a butter knife called “That!” which conducts heat from a person’s hand to slice through cold butter with ease.
Everyone who buys one hears “Merry Christmas” at the checkout counter. “In Oklahoma, that’s still pretty much the way you do it,” owner Terry Monroe said.
In small-town Louisiana, Brad Wright agrees. “When customers check out and they leave, we tell ‘em, ‘Merry Christmas,’” he said about the Nichols chain of five department stores where he is the chief financial officer.
Business seems to have picked up at Nichols, Wright said, since Trump was elected. People laid off from their jobs in Louisiana’s oil fields are optimistic that they’ll be getting back to work.
“We’re not worried about political correctness or what some left-winger thinks,” Wright said. “I’m sure there are people in this area that may be Muslim or Jewish. I don’t know. We always just said ‘Merry Christmas.’ … That’s our Christian beliefs.”
In the District of Columbia, by contrast — which is not just politically far more liberal than most of the country but also more religiously diverse — retailers who know their clientele, just as Monroe and Wright know theirs, steer far clear of “Merry Christmas.”
Call the 65 tents on F Street NW a “Christmas market,” and the man in charge will quickly correct you.
“We’re not a Christmas market. We’re a holiday market,” Michael Berman, the Downtown Holiday Market’s executive director, said. “Our focus is really handcrafts and small businesses, local businesses: a diversity of both products and what they celebrate.”
Mina Karimi sells decorative wooden blocks at the market, with every imaginable message silk-screened and hand-painted onto them. For a significant other, someone might buy from Karimi and her two business partners a colorful wall-hanging that says: “I am really glad that you exist on this planet.” Or, “You are actually the only person that doesn’t annoy me.”
But for all the dozens of sayings in her shop, there’s nary a “Merry Christmas.”
If there is a war over Christmas, Fay Hobbs Manthey’s store in Alexandria’s Old Town in Virginia seems a likely front.
The Christmas Attic sparkles, glows and hums to the tune of shelves of musical snow globes. Stockings hang, wreaths festoon, toy soldiers stand at attention. The whole room seems to unabashedly shout “Merry Christmas!”
But Hobbs Manthey sees herself not as a combatant in the war over Christmas, but as a peacemaker. “Merry Christmas,” she thinks, doesn’t have to be a term that excludes anybody.
“I think it’s part of our American culture. People have always been saying ‘Merry Christmas,” she said. “This is more of a cultural tradition than a religious celebration.”
In fact, no one has asked her in the 40-plus years since her parents opened a Christmas store, but Hobbs Manthey isn’t even Christian herself. She belongs to no church and considers herself a believer in “all religions.”
She wants any American family, of any background, to feel that they can buy into Christmas.
This year, she sold ornaments featuring a same-sex couple. That would have been unimaginable a few years ago, she said.
The ornaments sold out.