The List

The World War on Christmas

Five places where Santa really does have to watch his back.

It's that time of year again when Americans head home, gather with family and friends, snuggle up by the fire, and watch cable news hosts inform us about the secular liberal assault against Christmas. To these unhappy warriors, it seems every "Happy Holidays" sign, religiously neutral public display, or White House Christmas Card featuring the president's dog is a slap in the face to America's Christian values.

Fox host Bill O'Reilly -- the undisputed champion of Americans' right to tinsel, crèches, and holiday-specific corporate signage -- recently exhorted his viewers to "stand up and fight against this secular progressivism that wants to diminish the Christmas holiday."

"We have to start to fight back against these people," he averred.

Evidently, the warnings of O'Reilly and his fellow Christmas defenders are working. A recent poll by the left-leaning group Public Policy Polling found that 47 percent of Americans believe that there is indeed a "War on Christmas."

Never mind that a quick glance at any network commercial break or a casual stroll through a department store should reveal that the Christmas spirit is alive and well in America. But that's not true everywhere. Here's a look at five places where the War on Christmas is all too real.

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This Central Asian dictatorship is one country Santa will be skipping this year. According to the Associated Press, local media reported earlier this month that President Islam Karimov's regime has banned the local version of Santa Claus from television.

The gag order reportedly applies to Ded Moroz (Father Frost), his young female side-kick Snegurochka, and several other folklore characters known throughout the former Soviet world, including the infamous wood witch Baba Yaga. The ban is an attempt to discourage the celebration of holidays and folk figures deemed too Russian or too Western. According to the new decree, Christmas trees are allowed on TV, but only if they are small and pictured at a distance.

Karimov's nationalist, Asian-centric crusade has also targeted some other favorite holidays. Santa's blacklisting is similar to the government's 2005 ban on celebrating New Years Eve in the capitol's public schools. (Uzbekistan's New Year's Eve traditionally falls on the vernal equinox.) The government also canceled Valentine's Day celebrations this year, replacing them with "organized readings of poems by medieval Mughal emperor Babur." How romantic.



The officially atheist Hermit Kingdom does not permit the celebration of Christmas, and isn't too thrilled about South Korea's deeply devout Christians celebrating either. Though North Korea's constitution says it guarantees freedom of religion, at the time of Kim Jong Il's death, human rights activists estimated that there were between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians in North Korean labor camps. And those are the lucky ones -- missionaries caught distributing bibles, and anyone caught worshipping secretly can be tortured or executed, or both. So far, Kim Jong Un has turned out to be just as intolerant as his father. One woman told the New York Times in October, "If the government finds out I'm reading the Bible, I'm dead."

North Korea is so worried about Santa and his little helpers that last year, the People's Democratic Republic warned of "unexpected consequences" if the South Korean government allowed a Christian group to light a 100-foot tall Christmas tree-shaped tower just two miles from the North Korean border. The tree tower had been around for years, but as relations between the two countries improved under the South's conciliatory "sunshine policy," the tree was left unlit at Christmastime. Then, in December 2010, with tensions rising again after North Korea's 2009 nuclear test and its May 2010 shelling of a South Korean island, South Korea lit the "tree," which was clearly visible in the North Korean city of Kaesong. The North Korean regime regularly accuses South Korea of trying to spread Christianity among its people, but Uriminzokkiri, a state-run news website, kicked the outrage up a notch, calling the tree lighting "a mean form of psychological warfare."

In 2011, South Korea was going to light the tree -- as well as two more -- despite North Korea's threats, but the lighting was canceled out of respect for the mourning period following Kim Jong Il's death. This year, the South Koreans decided to go ahead with it -- and despite some warnings that Kim Jong Un has decided to strike the tree, the Wall Street Journal reports, "judging from the official state media, North Korea seems not to care very much."



Hugo Chávez is OK with Christmas -- in 2011, he used the holiday as an opportunity to spam the entire country's cell phones with a special Christmas text. He's just not OK with yanqui imperialist Christmas. In 2006, the Venezuelan president reportedly banned Christmas trees and images of Santa Claus from government offices because he deemed them too American. Instead, Chávez said, his country ought to celebrate the holiday with symbols inspired by Venezuelan tradition, such as mangers or ornaments decorated with the tropical Flor de la Navidad (poinsettia).

Other holidays have felt his wrath as well. In 2005, according to the BBC, Chávez urged Venezuelans not to celebrate Halloween, calling the U.S. custom a "game of terror." A tradition in which "families go and begin to disguise their children as witches" is "contrary to our way," he said.

This year, Christmas in Venezuela will be affected yet again -- though more due to incompetence than deliberate policy. The Economist reports that the government takeover of Venezuelan ports has created huge holdups in processing imports. Due to a combination of poor maintenance, inexperienced management, and bureaucratic obstruction, a number of "seasonal products" including trees, toys, and popular Christmas foods are piled up in the country's ports. Some products might not arrive in time for Christmas, the magazine warns.



In austere Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim religious activities are banned in public -- no churches, no wearing crosses, no importing Bibles, and no Christmas. Expatriates and travelers in the kingdom have found ways to celebrate the holiday, but are generally advised to keep their jingle bells to themselves.

The country's hard-line religious police are especially alert in the days leading up to Christmas and other Christian and Western celebrations. According to a 2004 article from the Associated Press, "Christmas cards are sold under the counter and only in very few stores. Some florists discreetly sell Christmas trees, mostly artificial ones, and poinsettias. One florist told customers that several dozen fresh trees from Holland were intercepted at the airport, hacked to pieces and then sent back to Holland."

In a recent blog post, one American ex-intelligence officer who has lived in Saudi Arabia writes that Christmas celebrations and decorations are tolerated in Western compounds. But outside the compounds, no one should "flaunt the holiday spirit."

Not everyone in the Saudi government is totally bereft of good tidings. As David Keyes pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last year, the Saudi attitude toward the holiday season makes the 2011 holiday card sent out last year by Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir especially unexpected. It read: "Behold, the angels said: 'O Mary, God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God.'"



Cuba is one place where the law fought Christmas, and Christmas won. In 1969, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro decided the country couldn't afford for Cubans to take the day off during the all-important sugar harvest, so he banned Christmas as a public holiday. The edict lasted for three decades. Yoani Sánchez, FP contributor and award-winning Cuban blogger, remembers growing up during the ban: "Of all the naughty words and phrases I remember from childhood, two stand out as being particularly taboo: ‘Christmas' and ‘Human Rights.'"

In 1998, thanks largely to pressure from the Vatican, the communist government restored Christmas. Not everyone embraced the change. In December 1998, one Cuban newspaper warned its readers to beware of Santa Claus, whom its editors, anticipating Hugo Chávez's position years later, called a symbol of American "consumerism," "cultural hegemony," and "mental colonization." Santa, who one newspaper called "The leading symbol of the hagiography of US mercantilism," bore the brunt of the abuse. (Some of the opposition to American Christmas tradition was more practical: According to one columnist, Christmas trees and artificial snow were inappropriate in a tropical country.)

Today, according to Sánchez, Cuban government institutions mostly remain undecorated during the holiday season, but many in this deeply Catholic country now celebrate Christmas with enthusiasm, decorating their homes and shops with garlands, lights, small plastic trees and images of Santa Claus. "These visual excesses of today are very likely the popular response to all those Christmas eves celebrated in whispers, or totally ignored," she writes.

If even a totalitarian communist government can't defeat Christmas, we probably don't have much to fear from the liberal secular agenda.


The List

Naughty or Nice

Which world leaders will be getting coal in their stocking this year?

With the year coming to an end, and Santa finalizing his list, we run down the leaders most deserving of praise and scorn in 2012.

The Nice List

Thein Sein
He's moving in the right direction on democracy.

There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical in 2011 when this longtime member of Myanmar's ruling military junta took over the presidency, but so far he's followed through on his pledges to allow the country to slowly democratize, holding relatively free and a fair parliamentary elections in April that brought longtime regime foe Aung San Suu Kyi into the parliament. The two might make an unlikely pair, and Myanmar is still a long way from true democracy, but this year's success is worth noting.

Joyce Banda
She's undone the damage caused by her predecessor.

Banda took over the presidency in April after the unexpected death of her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika, who had been best known for lavishing millions on presidential palaces, private jets, a fleet of Mercedes (while his people have one of the lowest living standards in the world), and brutally crushing the political opposition. Banda quickly came in to clean house and restore her struggling country's reputation: she leased the jet, fired officials known for cracking down on the opposition, and persuaded foreign governments -- including Britain and the United States, who had tired of Mutharika's antics -- to start sending aid again. 

Abdoulaye Wade
He left, peacefully.

Senegal's president for the past 12 years leaves a decidedly mixed legacy, praised by some as a bold reformer but chastised for wasting public money on garish monuments, pursuing a constitutionally questionable third term in office, and seeming to groom his son as a successor. But when push came to shove, and polls showed he had been commandingly defeated by onetime protégé Macy Sall in April's presidential election, Wade surprised many by quickly calling Sall to concede -- avoiding yet another political crisis. Considering Senegal's unruly neighbors -- every one of the four countries it borders has had a coup in the last five years -- that's sadly worth some praise.                                            

Francois Hollande
He went on a real apology tour.

Putting aside his controversial economic plans and views on the Eurocrisis for a moment, Hollande deserves credit for publicly confronting some of the uglier moments in French history. In July, at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv round-up -- during which over 13,000 Jews were detained by French police and deported by concentration camps, an event that was denied by French governments for decades  -- Hollande gave a moving speech calling for citizens to come to terms with this "crime committed in France by France," and praised political rival Jacques Chirac for being the first president to acknowledge French complicity.

In October, Hollande became the first French president to acknowledge the government's responsibility for the 1961 massacre of hundreds of pro-Algerian protesters by Paris police. In a visit to Algeria this month, he followed up by referring to the "profoundly unjust and brutal" nature of French colonial rule. While the remarks stopped short of the direct apology many Algerians were hoping for, Hollande deserves credit for his willingness to discuss the times France has not lived up to its ideals.  

Jose Mujica
He walks the populist walk.

Lots of presidents talk about their humble origins and portray themselves as men (or women) of the people, but Mujica backs it up. The "world's poorest president" donates 90 percent of his salary to charity, has forgone the presidential palace to live in a ramshackle farmhouse outside Montevideo, and gets around in a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. Uruguay's business community may have worried when the former leftist guerilla fighter was elected in 2009, but so far he's been more Lula than Hugo on economics this year, while pursuing some dramatic social reforms -- including measures to loosen restrictions on abortion, allow gay marriage, and legalize small amounts of marijuana.

David Gray-Pool/Getty Images; AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP/Getty Images; GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images; Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images; MIGUEL ROJO/AFP/GettyImages

The Naughty list

Bashar al-Assad
He's in his own category of awfulness.

Once widely considered among the most promising of the Middle East's reformist autocrats, Assad has taken the wholesale destruction of his own country to unspeakable levels this year, with the death toll topping 37,000 according to some estimates, hundreds of thousands displaced, and entire towns leveled. Assad also apparently has few reservations about using weapons like Scud missiles and cluster munitions on his own people. Even his friends in Russia seem to be getting tired of defending him

Kim Jong Un
North Korea
He's a daddy's boy... and consider who his daddy was.

Hopes that North Korea's young leader might take some steps to help his isolated and impoverished country rejoin the world faded quickly this year, with Kim reaffirming his father's "military first" policy, launching ballistic missile in defiance of international condemnation, detaining U.S. citizens, and -- reportedly -- executing wayward military officials by mortar fire. Perhaps fatherhood will soften him a bit, but we wouldn't count on it.

Aleksandr Lukashenko
For not even being embarrassed about being a dictator.

Most dictators at least deny being dictators. But Lukashenko is done with that facade, telling a Reuters correspondent this year, "I am the last and only dictator in Europe. Indeed there are none anywhere else in the world... You came here and looked at a living dictator. Where else would you see one?" Lukashenko, who seems to be grooming his 7-year-old son as his successor, lived up to his reputation this year, with widespread arrests of journalists and political opponents. He ended the year on another low note, seeming to endorse a return to serfdom by seriously proposing that wood-processing workers be prevented by law from leaving their jobs. The only good news? With the way things are going in Ukraine, he may not be able to brag about being Europe's last dictator for much longer.

Paul Kagame
He's suppressing his own citizens and destabilizing his neighbors.

While he still has some friends in Washington, this seems to have been the year the gloss finally came of the Rwandan president's international reputation as a democratic reformer. Kagame's supporters in the West have largely looked the other way in recent years as evidence of his government imprisoning opponents and muzzling the press has mounted. But the tipping point may have come this year with a long-delayed U.N. report accusing Rwanda of actively supporting the M23 rebel movement, which has taken over wide swathes of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Several countries, including Britain and Germany, have now suspended aid to the onetime darling of the development community.

Mohamed Morsy
He's quickly proving his critics right.

It's still early to say, but Morsy hasn't exactly reassured his opponents and critics, who feared that once in power the Muslim Brotherhood leader would seek to limit open democracy in Egypt. Indeed, he's pushed through a new Islamist-backed constitution that contains few protections for the press, minorities, and women's rights -- and which many fear could put political power in the hands of clerics. There are also disturbing reports that Morsy's supporters have abused and abducted opponents during demonstrations against his constitutional power grab and that he has blocked investigations of their actions. Let's hope the last month was not a sign of what's to come.

RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty Images; Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images; VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/GettyImages; MICHELLE SIBILONI/AFP/Getty Images; AFP/GettyImages