Is the White House Installing ‘Holiday Trees’ Instead of Christmas Trees?

A chain email attaching an actual journalist to yet another “War on Christmas” lie continues to spread online in perpetuity, thanks to social media users with short memories.

The text begins:

Apparently the White House referred to Christmas Trees as Holiday Trees for the first time this year, which prompted CBS presenter Steven Levy to present this piece.

The following was written by Steven Levy and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.
My confession:

I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat…

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

We found Facebook users artificially inflating the spread of the chain message as copypasta in late 2021 by re-circulating it based on the platform’s prompts urging them to share old content as “memories”:

In reality, though, the lengthy message — a litany of right-wing grievances — is a nesting doll of falsehoods. For instance, no iteration of the text contains evidence to support the “holiday tree” claim; in November 2021, for example, Jill Biden revealed on Twitter that the White House had put its Christmas tree up:

In fact, the White House has had Christmas trees (not “holiday trees”) since 1889. And in early December 2021, both the First Lady and President Joe Biden attended the lighting ceremony for the National Christmas Tree (not “holiday tree”) outside of the White House.

Furthermore, Steven Levy never delivered any commentary about a “holiday tree” for CBS News or any other outlet. Because of the spread of the chain email, he wrote in 2014, he had received a “steady trickle” of emails mistakenly thanking him for showing “courage” in publishing it. But he thoroughly disavowed any connection with the post:

No. I did not go on “CBS Sunday Morning” to express my rage at the White House for calling its annual fir a “holiday tree.” I did not say, “I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians.”

I did not contend that the Founding Fathers embraced the concept of Christian doctrine in public schools. I did not launch an attack on Madeline Murray O’Hair in particular, and atheists in general, for opposing prayer in schools. Nor did I imply that she had what was coming to her when she was murdered.

I did not impugn Doctor Spock for telling people not to spank their children, and I certainly don’t think that his son committed suicide because of insufficient corporal punishment. Nor do I think that if we hit our kids more often and more lustily, the murder rate would drop.

In December 2021 he reiterated those remarks.

“I never went on CBS News or anywhere else to address this subject,” he told Agence France-Presse, which reported on the new iteration of the fake “commentary.”

Another version of the chain email attributes it to another Jewish author, Ben Stein, and it does use a portion of a commentary that aired on CBS Sunday Morning in December 2005:

This version spread further online in 2011, when Stein recorded another commentary for CBS claiming that he and his wife “celebrate Christmas, big-time.”

However, that chain mail also twists Stein’s commentary (which centered around his blaming atheism being “shoved down his throat” on publicity for celebrities like Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson). As AFP reported, the chain email’s most inflammatory claims blaming school shootings and Dr. Spock for “holiday trees” was lifted from a June 2002 letter published in the McCook Gazette newspaper in Nebraska.

“What I cannot track is just where and when Ben Stein’s name dropped out and mine replaced it,” Levy wrote in 2014:

All I know is that at some more recent point — probably at the tail end of last season— I started getting emails from grateful readers of something I never wrote, and when I Google my name and ‘War on Christmas,’ weird things show up. And that the email chain is unbroken. Probably as you read this some number of people are clicking on it and vowing to pass it on to their friends. What can I do about it? Basically, nothing. The Internet is a vast lawn with billions of mole-holes. You can’t whack a problem like this away.

Update 12/7/2021, 1:25pm PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. -ag