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Trump Can’t Make Teachers or Students Say “Merry Christmas”

He also can't make them say "Happy Holidays." So, you know, nothing is going to change.

Friendly reminder: The President of the United States has absolutely no authority to tell people what holiday greeting to use. In fact, any attempt to enforce religion-specific cheer is illegal. It’s worth mentioning this — in passing anyway — because President Trump spent much of his rambling speech at this year’s Values Voter Summit promising that “we” are going to start saying “Merry Christmas” again. It’s unclear who “we” is, but it isn’t public school kids, who always seem to wind up in the middle of this dumb fight.

Speaking to the annual gathering of Christian conservatives, Trump returned to one of his oft-repeated campaign promises to fight back against a supposedly encroaching culture of “political correctness,” zeroing in on the longstanding if fabricated concern that Christian Americans are somehow barred from invoking the word “Christmas.” Again, they are not. They are simply banned from using government money to support religious causes.

“We are stopping all our attacks on Judeo-Christian values,” Trump said. “We don’t use the word Christmas because it’s not politically correct … We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”


girls decorating christmas tree

Here’s the thing: the “War on Christmas” idea that Trump is again trying to tap into just doesn’t exist. For over a decade, conservative talk radio and TV programs have suggested that there is an organized insurgency that intends to suppress the acknowledgment and celebration of Christmas. The alleged perpetrators are the “P.C. Left” and these discussions seem to burst up every winter when radio pundits crack their copies of John Gibson’s seasonal classic The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.

That book and its message, echoed for years by Bill O’Reilly, is pretty much what you think it is. People, the argument goes, shouldn’t have to say “Happy Holidays.” They should be able to say “Merry Christmas.” That’s the world we want our kids to inherit.

Here’s the thing: Kids say “Merry Christmas” all the time and, though educators can evince a preference for “Happy Holidays,” no concerted effort has been made to stop that behavior within the public schools, the government institutions that most immediately form and shape children’s lives. Public schools are often described as the “frontlines” of the fictional culture war. If this is true, there’s a Christmas truce in full flower on account of the freedom of religion. The federal government does not and cannot ban expressions of religious faith that do not interfere with others. Children can say “Merry Christmas” all they want so long as they’re not whipping people with fairy lights as they do it. Trump’s apparent concern over the rise of “Happy Holidays” is particularly odd given that the only place such an agenda could be enforced is subject to laws that make that enforcement impossible.

The broader concern about Judeo-Christian values seems to stem from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 decision to ban school-sponsored prayer in public schools, which cited the First Amendment. Judeo-Christian got ever so slightly less ubiquitous even though prayer was never restricted and celebrations certainly weren’t.

christmas arts and crafts

This confusion was addressed way back in 1995 when then-President Bill Clinton’s memo titled “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” said: “It appears that some school officials, teachers and parents have assumed that religious expression of any type is either inappropriate, or forbidden altogether, in public schools.” Clinton further cited abundant legal precedent that protected religious expression in schools, writing: “As our courts have reaffirmed, however, nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door.”

Despite what the President of the United States seems to think, there is absolutely no mass-organized attempt, especially in public schools, to force anybody to say “Happy Holidays.” That would be completely illegal. And to organize an attempt to counter this fictional phenomenon would be just as illegal.