Lost in a muddle of greetings

The holiday season in the US with Thanksgiving and travels via Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas to Ne

It's that time of year again. No, not just Christmas, but the annual ritual of US-based British journalists ridiculing America, lamenting how its political correctness is de-Christianising Christmas. The abolition of Christmas cards and parties in favour of "Holiday" equivalents, Christmas trees being banned from town squares, little boys being sent home from school for singing "Jingle Bells": that kind of thing. What one never reads about this movement, as it rapidly spreads to the UK, is why it is taking hold so ferociously.

To recap: "the holidays" in the US start with Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday of November) and end with New Year's Day. In terms of air travel and family get-togethers, the largely secular Thanksgiving is celebrated far more than Christmas or New Year; "the holidays" trigger a commercial bonanza, and November and December account for 27 per cent of annual retail shop ping in the US. Gap ord ered 155,000 non-religious ornaments to egg on the festive buying spirit this year, and Tiffany's flagship emporium in Manhattan boasts 17,717 frosted pine cones.

Yet the very word Christmas is now, in effect, verboten. If you use it in 2007, you are down right un-American. This is not just in everyday conversation either, but in church schools and even in some mega-churches that close for Christmas. Like many chain stores, Target (America's fifth-largest retailer) even decreed in 2004 that the C-word must not appear on a single item sold in its 1,500 shops. George Bush's Christmas cards do not mention the taboo word either, and this year's official Christmas ornament of the White House Historical Association bizarrely features a wedding (that of Grover Cleveland, the only president to marry in the White House).

The minor Jewish festival of Hanukkah and the manufactured black American holiday of Kwanzaa - more of both later - are promoted by America's leaders and its media to equal the importance of Christmas, one of the two holiest days of the world's biggest religion. Yet 84 per cent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, and Christmas itself is celebrated in 90 per cent of US homes. Isn't there a paradox here?

Americans congratulate themselves that this is due to their much-ballyhooed religious freedom - and, in particular, to the US constitution's First Amendment: that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". What few acknowledge is that this clause, inserted by founding fathers who took it for gran ted that America was Christian, was promp ted by fear of the power and influence of the Church of England, rather than any premonition that one day Americans would be Jewish or Muslim.

Thus, religious "freedom" never really came into it, just as nobody dreamt that Thomas Jefferson's 1776 proclamation that "all men are created equal" referred to black people or women. But sentimentality and a pragmatic willingness to reinterpret events from America's past as indicators of boundless goodness have evolved entirely new meanings for both decrees. The first Puritans who settled in Massachusetts made celebrating Christmas a crime. The fusion of commercialism and Christmas came in the mid-19th century with the rise of department stores and advertising, when Coca-Cola made Santa Claus its logo.

Jewish immigrants in the 20th century asserted their Jewishness by reinventing Hanuk kah as an essentially American Jewish tradition, even though it does not feature at all in the Torah and is vastly less significant than Yom Kippur or even Purim. Kwanzaa, a week-long celebration of the African roots of black Americans, was invented in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, aka Ron Everett, a black nationalist leader who feuded with the Black Panthers and was jailed in 1971 for assaulting and torturing two women. In 1997 and 2004 the US Postal Service nonetheless bestowed its imprimatur by issuing Kwanzaa stamps, and it is now considered de rigueur to wish black Americans a "Happy Kwanzaa" - though I know of none who actually celebrate it.

Black Americans, the vast majority of whom are Christian, thus find themselves patronised by white people who distinguish them solely by their race when dispensing seasonal good wishes. Likewise, the imposition of menorahs besides Nativity scenes in malls - even, in some cases, replacing them - leads to suppressed anger amid the "silent majority", handing the likes of Fox News an issue with which it can vent its ugly spleen. The result? Yet more festering racism and anti-Semitism, driven deeper underground, rather than the religious tolerance of folklore. Happy Christmas from Washington.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007