It’s the festive season, and that can only mean one thing. No, not peace, love, goodwill, or even commercialism, but controversy. Every year, fundamentalists, radical atheists, and the media sharpen their knives and prepare to carve all the fun out the holidays with a whole lot of arguing. And sometimes, that arguing goes beyond mere controversy and into the truly bizarre:
10. The Christmas Billboard Clash
Every Christmas, organizations like the American Atheists and Catholic League like to blow off steam by erecting billboards rubbishing each other’s beliefs. And every Christmas, the vast majority of people ignore them, too busy with last-minute shopping to get caught up in inter-faith battles. But in 2010, that all changed, as that was the year both sides decided to go nuclear.
The opening shot came from the American Atheists, who set up a gigantic billboard simply claiming “YOU KNOW IT’S A MYTH” along I-495. Having decided to fight a lack of subtlety with an equal lack of subtlety, the Catholic League set up one outside the Lincoln Tunnel, simply reading “YOU KNOW IT’S REAL.” Despite sounding like a playground battle between two kids shouting “MINE” and “NOT” the resulting controversy seemed to rope in the whole of New York, drawing in everyone from the press to Glenn Beck. No word whether either billboard managed to change anyone’s deep-seated beliefs, but we’re guessing the answer is “NO.”
9. Hallmark’s “Gay” Fail
In November of 2013, greeting card company Hallmark managed to jump the gun on Christmas controversies when it unveiled its latest ornament: a Christmas jumper with the words “don we now our fun apparel” scrawled across it. In case you don’t know the words to “Deck the Halls,” it’s a modified lyric, with the word “fun” substituted for the word “gay.” And this substitution sent the whole world screaming mad.
Bizarrely, no one was sure who should be offended. Conservatives claimed the company was bowing to political correctness by trying not to offend homosexuals. Liberals, on the other hand, claimed the company was being homophobic by acting like “gay” was a dirty word. Even after the company apologized, no one was any clearer about which side they were caving in to. In short, Hallmark managed to do the impossible: unite far-left and far-right in a common cause – an unusual outcome for any Christmas controversy.
8. The Red Cross Banned Christmas, Except They Didn’t
You’ve probably heard of the Red Cross. Basically, they’re a charitable organization that maintains strict neutrality in all matters, so warring nations will let them in to administer aid on battlefields. Despite their symbol being a cross, they were founded as a secular organisation, and have always acted as such. Yet people were still deeply shocked in 2002 when their British shops decided to ban Christmas.
Now, just to be clear, there’s nothing strange about people getting worked up over an organization literally banning Christmas. That wouldn’t be bizarre. What was bizarre was that the Red Cross had done no such thing. The original story was an error, a hack job that ignored the fact that Red Cross shops were not only decorated for Christmas, but selling Christmas cards and organizing Christmas markets as well. Yet, the whole country fell for it and, over a decade later, the Red Cross is still losing donations thanks to lazy bloggers propagating this dumb myth.
7. Bill O’Reilly’s War on Holidays
We’ll assume you’re familiar with Bill O’Reilly: right wing pundit, Fox News host, and proud conservative. What you may not be familiar with is his objection to a certain part of the holiday season: for the past eight years, Bill O’Reilly has been waging an unofficial war on stores that use “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
To be honest, this is already a bit of a bizarre thing to get worked up about, as Hanukkah also falls around the same time, so “holidays” makes more sense. But the real icing of dumbness on this controversy cake came from O’Reilly himself. After he publicly whipped up his followers to denounce stores selling “holiday trees,” it was discovered that Fox was selling official Bill O’Reilly holiday tree ornaments in their store. Not Christmas, mind you — holiday. We guess that makes O’Reilly a self-loathing Grinch.
Winterval was one of the biggest Christmas controversies to ever hit the UK. In 1998, it was revealed that Birmingham city council had decided to rename Christmas “Winterval.” As the years passed, and more papers ran stories on this linguistic abomination, increasingly awful facts came to light. It wasn’t just one city council; it was councils all over the UK. The renaming was thanks to militant atheists. The Islamic community was even said to be involved. Wow, pretty crazy stuff, right?
Yes, but not in the way you might be thinking: see, in 2011, it was revealed that Winterval simply didn’t exist. As in, it wasn’t real. All it had ever been was an informal marketing term used by Birmingham council to denote a series of 44 public celebrations between October 1997 and January 1998. Christmas was still called Christmas. Hanukkah was still called Hanukkah. Halloween was still Halloween. Everything else — the atheists, the multiple councils following suit, all of it — was completely made up. And yet, it somehow wound up not only becoming one of the most enduring Christmas myths of all time, but actually influencing British government policy. You couldn’t make this stuff up – except, of course, for all the parts that lazy journalists made up.
5. Henry Ford’s Christmas Scare
Christmas controversies have been around ever since there was a Christmas to get controversial about. But perhaps no long-passed controversy retains as much staying power as Henry Ford’s 1921 tract on the war on Christmas. Like the people above who thought the Red Cross was banning Christmas, Ford was convinced a certain group was targeting his beloved holidays and forcing stores to stop selling Christmas cards. Only Ford didn’t blame liberals, atheists or Grinches. He blamed the Jews.
His “The International Jew” was a four-volume diatribe that sought to pin every single social ill on a global Jewish cartel – including the lack of public Christmas spirit in America. And guess what? Not only is this anti-Semitic “classic” currently available to buy on Amazon, it’s garnering rave reviews.
4. The Puritan Christmas Ban
Another historic controversy, the Massachusetts Christmas ban of 1659 is as counter-intuitive as they come. Whereas today we’re used to Christians complaining that people no longer celebrate Christmas, in the 17th century they were far more likely to complain that they did.
It’s true: the Puritans were convinced that Christmas was a pagan tradition, derived from the Roman Saturnalia. Since the Bible itself contains no mention of the 25th of December (and even now, you won’t find any scholars seriously suggesting that Jesus was born that day,) they viewed the holiday with suspicion, going so far as to outlaw it for 22 years. It was only when the British asserted full control over the colony that Christmas was reintroduced, but even then local disdain for the festive season was apparently so great that it remained frowned upon until 1869.
To put it another way: if you were to magically appear on a random year in Boston’s history one December 25th, you’d be more likely to find yourself in a time when Christians shunned Christmas, than one where they celebrated it.
3. Illegal Mince Pies
Like the Puritans above, Oliver Cromwell was a Christian who didn’t hold much truck with Christmas – or, it seemed, Christianity. Under his leadership, stuff like bell ringing in churches was banned, as was pretty much everything that wasn’t hard work or quiet Godly contemplation. He also banned Christmas but, unlike the Massachusetts Puritans, felt that one blanket ban wasn’t enough. No, Cromwell decided it was his God-given duty to also ban mince pies.
Yep, illegal mince pies. In 1644, Cromwell declared them “abominable and idolatrous things,” and had Parliament pass a law to outlaw eating them. It’s like if George H.W. Bush had turned his personal disdain for broccoli into a national mandate. Along with his other Christmas bans, the law led to rioting in British cities – riots that Cromwell’s men crushed brutally. The peasants had the last laugh though: although he succeeded in killing Christmas, Cromwell could never fully stamp out the pesky pies. Right up till the ban was lifted in 1660, common people kept feasting on traditional Christmas foods, essentially sticking a gigantic middle finger right into Cromwell’s warty face.
2. The “Death” of Santa
You might know very little of Uzbekistan. It’s a small, central Asian state, ruled by a tyrant who hates everything, including Christmas. See, ever since it was annexed by the USSR all those decades ago, Islamic Uzbekistan has shared Russia’s Santa Claus: a guy called Father Frost. Ordinary Uzbeks celebrate the holidays much as we do, leading to frequent clashes with their repressive government.
Last year, the despots in charge issued a blanket ban on TV appearances by Father Frost, to the fury of most citizens. Unfortunately, they don’t live in the sort of country where complaining is an option – despite Christmas being deeply popular among most Uzbek Muslims, the Santa ban went ahead, with those opposing it likely receiving a visit from the secret police. It really makes you glad to be living in a country where the words “Christmas controversy” means two guys setting up billboards to insult each other.
1. Iran Refuses to Ban Christmas
Finally, at the other end of weird Christmas controversies comes Iran’s ongoing decision not to ban Christmas. Despite being a hard-line Islamic nation, Israel’s belligerent neighbor has a long-term small Christian community, and allows the selling and display of Christmas trees and decorations. The ability to celebrate Christmas is enshrined in law, and the president has even been known to go on TV and wish people a Merry Christmas.
And some hard liners HATE it. Despite living in a society that’s 98% Muslim and almost always clamps down on religious freedoms, the fact that their country holds even one Christian festival is the ultimate insult. To them, it’s a smack in the face from those who are less fundamental than they (i.e. nearly everyone.) And boy, do they like to get loudly irritated by it.
In short, Iran is home to perhaps the most bizarre Christmas controversy of all: a section of the population steaming mad because the government refuses to ban the holidays. Now how’s that for weird?