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'Tis the season: What the 'War on Christmas' looks like in 2016

While discourse surrounding the secularization of the holiday season hasn't changed, opponents of the so-called war on Christmas gained a powerful ally on the national political stage in 2016: President-elect Donald Trump. 

The 82nd Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is seen shortly after being lit at the annual ceremony at Rockefeller Center in New York City on December 3, 2014.
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A decade after Fox News and a popular book first brought the phrase "war on Christmas" into the national lexicon, public celebration of the Christian holiday remains a sensitive subject for many Americans.

While much of the "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" fervor came to a head in the mid-2000s, when John Gibson's book "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought" reached peak popularity, debate over the perceived secularization of the holiday season inevitably returns each year, playing out in recent controversies such as the First Family's non-denominational holiday card and Starbucks's plain red seasonal coffee cups.

But while discourse surrounding the "war on Christmas" has taken place primarily on Fox News and conservative talk radio shows in the past, this year the pro-"Merry Christmas" faction gained a voice on the national political stage thanks to a powerful ally: President-elect Donald Trump. Mr. Trump's adoption of the cause speaks to the concerns of conservative supporters who see a broader persecution of Christians in America and political correctness run amok. But once he takes office, Trump's explicit support of the holiday has the potential to expand beyond rhetoric into concrete political action.

"The 'war on Christmas' discourse sounds similar notes each season, so it's less the discourse that has changed than the context and the stakes," says Kevin Coe, an associate professor of communication at the University of Utah, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. "More so than in the past, the 'war on Christmas' is connected to perceptions of a broader 'war on Christianity.' "

"Trump's election," he adds, "might embolden those who feel like their faith is under attack, whether it is in reality or not, because his election was viewed in some circles as a shot across the bow at anything that might be considered even vaguely 'politically correct.' "

Not all conservatives and Christians feel that Christmas is under attack. In a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, only 13 percent of Americans polled said they'd be personally offended if someone told them "Happy Holidays," compared to the three percent of Americans who found "Merry Christmas" offensive. The poll also notes that 57 percent of Republicans say there is a war on Christmas, down from 68 percent of Republicans in 2012. 

But those numbers could increase as the war on Christmas becomes more about party politics and less about ideology.

"What Trump has done is he’s tried to make this into a partisan issue," says Dan Cassino, an associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in a phone interview with the Monitor. "You’re not going to be worried about this because you're conservative, you’re going to be worried about this because you’re a Republican. So that represents a potential expansion of the people who are going to say [there's a war on Christmas], because it becomes part of your political identity." 

Throughout his campaign, Trump and his spokespeople repeatedly voiced support for saying "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays," appealing both to non-religious voters fed up with a perceived onslaught of political correctness and conservative Christians. 

Such pitches, Professor Cassino says, can be a "costless" and "very profitable" way for politicians such as Trump, who is "not someone who would be natural for Evangelicals to support," to "throw a dog whistle" to deeply religious voters without relying on more controversial issues such as abortion or LGBT rights. 

Indeed, many Evangelicals have reported feeling a sense of relief at Trump's election, as Patrik Jonsson reported for The Christian Science Monitor on Monday: 

Given an election where more evangelical Americans voted for twice-divorced Donald Trump than they did for church-going George W. Bush, [David] Cox has witnessed a major mind-set shift among many fellow Evangelicals – from trepidation, even fear, to hope – a sense, he says, of "being accepted again." ...

For many Evangelicals, the Obama administration’s promotion of transgender rights on bathroom choice, as well as the mounting number of lawsuits against religious business owners has felt like persecution.

Some 32 percent of American evangelical leaders say they currently experience persecution for their faith, while 76 percent believe they will experience persecution in the form of social, financial, and political pressure in the future, according to an October survey by the National Association of Evangelicals.

That sense played heavily into Trump’s victory: 26 percent of the electorate last month was made up of white Evangelicals – a record, according to exit polls. Clinton won only 16 percent of those votes.

As Trump prepares to take office in January, some opponents of the "war on Christmas" say they are optimistic that their new commander-in-chief will protect public expressions of the Christian holiday. 

"I am glad he expressed those thoughts, and so hopefully that means in the future, after he’s sworn in and gets to appoint people to federal positions, that we won’t have any federal participation in squelching the celebration of Christmas," Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) of Colo., who has introduced a House resolution in defense of Christmas celebrations, told The Hill. 

The question now, Cassino says, is: "What does Trump do with this? Is there a strategic element, or is he just doing this as part of his political correctness spiel?" 

"If it's just about political correctness, you'll just expect him to say 'Merry Christmas' and not see much change over time," he continues. "If it's a strategic move to shore up change among religious Republicans, he could turn this into a much bigger issue for companies." 

For some religious conservatives, the symbolism of Trump's election alone may be victory enough. 

"You can say again, ‘Merry Christmas,’ because Donald Trump is now the president," former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski assured viewers on Fox News' "Hannity" earlier this month. "You can say it again, it’s OK to say, it’s not a pejorative word anymore."