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‘’Twas the Fight Before Christmas’ Review

December 13, 2021
‘’Twas the Fight Before Christmas’ Review

What would the Christmas season be without the War on Christmas? Since the early 2000s, thanks to media attention from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly, Americans have been fed a steady diet of controversies and nontroversies related to the most wonderful time of the year. From the use of “Xmas”—literally taking the Christ out of Christmas—and “Happy holidays,” to holiday-themed Starbucks cups, there’s no shortage of fodder for the cultural warriors itching to do Yuletide battle.

For most Americans, the de-emphasizing of the Nativity story from the holiday is an attempt to make the festival season more inclusive to other religious traditions and the non-religious, while still celebrating overlapping themes of family, charity, and gratitude. Few Christians are actually offended when someone says “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” As Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College puts it, “We can’t force our secular culture to celebrate Christmas in a Christian manner any more than we can make Americans spend Good Friday reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s death.”

But for other Christians, these more inclusive acts and the efforts to uncouple the 25th of December to the birth of Jesus are seen as yet another instance of Christian persecution. Despite how trivial these grievances appear in the light of more serious, ongoing, and actually deadly forms of Christian persecution in other parts of the world, former President Trump and a host of other Republicans have assured these voters that, if elected, people are going to be “able” to say Merry Christmas again.

It is from this tempest that AppleTV+’s ’Twas the Fight Before Christmas emerges.

Directed by Becky Read, the 91-minute documentary centers on the arrival of Jeremy Morris, an Idahoan attorney, into the West Hayden Estates, a quiet community of close neighbors, seeking to raise their families and enjoy their retirement in peace. Peace, however, is the last thing on Morris’ mind, as he moves in with the hope of transforming his home into a Christmas spectacle. Channeling Clark Griswold, Morris had turned his previous home into a Christmas light show, featuring free cotton candy, hot chocolate, a choir, and a camel. Many neighbors welcomed the event and the money Morris raised for charity; others complained about the congestion, noise, and lights. Believing he needed to go even grander next year and desiring to avoid city permits, Morris moved into West Hayden Estates with big plans for a 2015 Christmas Light Show.

The West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association and Morris soon begin a back and forth with neither willing to give an inch about the fast-approaching Christmas Light Show. Things really start to escalate once the HOA sends Morris a letter that states some of the “non-Christian” residents of West Hayden Estates might feel nervous about his Christmas Light Show, and “the problems that could bring up.” Taken as a direct attack upon his faith and as a legal shot across the bow, Morris declares holy war against the HOA.

In due course, Fox News gets involved and ignites a sea of conservative outrage on Facebook. Tensions mount between Morris and his neighbors, leading to the militia group the Three Percenters offering Morris protection. Morris and his neighbors monitor each other’s movements and actions with laser-focused intensity, hoping to catch the other in violation of the HOA’s rules (including how many dogs someone is allowed to own).

Homeowners associations are, understandably, the bane of every freedom-loving American’s existence and one might expect ’Twas the Fight Before Christmas to depict a legal battle between a well-meaning but oddly eccentric Christmas enthusiast and a group of nanny statist Grinch-like Karens who want to sap the joy out of the holiday season. But this expectation is subverted once we realize that Morris is, well, a jerk. Despite his attempts to claim his Christmas Light Show is a ministry, his dogged determination to troll his neighbors via Christmas ornamentation is a decidedly un-Christian way to put the Christ back in Christmas.

While ’Twas the Fight Before Christmas readily acknowledges how arcane and stultifying the bylaws of homeowner associations can be, the documentary does not take the opportunity to dive into the implications of this view. This omission likely stems from a desire to deprive Morris of ammunition about what he can do with his own property. Even so, it does tackle the issues of personal liberty, community spirit, and private property, highlighting how Morris embodies the all-too-common attitude of “liberty for me but not for thee.” Freedom of association is a two-way street, and no one wants to be forced to associate with someone who moves to a community and is determined to flout the rules in a way that makes their lives more unpleasant.

Most importantly, ’Twas the Fight Before Christmas highlights the ways in which bad faith actors are repeatedly rewarded by our political environment for no other reason than that they’re deliberately provocative. They may be jerks who make the lives of their neighbors worse, but that doesn’t stop news outlets and online culture war addicts from heaping praise upon them specifically for being jerks. The “War on Christmas” is a media-manufactured battle the de-escalation of which might bring some measure of holiday peace.

It may not be the usual Christmas lesson, but it is a good one nonetheless.

Daniel N. Gullotta

Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University specializing in American religious history. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.