Why avoid using 'Merry Christmas'?

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The all-inclusive "Happy Holidays" greeting has become an annual December puzzler for towns, public schools, and businesses: How do we respect the holiday traditions of one group of citizens without causing detriment to another?

While Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and in some years Ramadan and Diwali, share the same season, last year's polls show around 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas.

For a pluralistic nation that prides itself upon embracing both freedom of expression and the separation of church and state, the widespread public celebration of Christmas poses a unique quandary. Guiding public displays of Christmas cheer are a patchwork of inconsistent, local-level policies - the perfect conditions under which litigation emerges.

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Successive years of legal action by civil libertarians have effectively curtailed the public promotion of all things "Christmas," giving rise to more politically correct - and judiciously safe - "Holiday" observances. In doing so, public officials and retailers alike have nurtured a well-founded hypersensitivity to the opinions of a minority group.

But just when the scales of political correctness seem to be gaining balance, along comes a new backlash. This year, it's the majority group of Christmas adherents who are alleging a persecution of beliefs.

After nearly two decades of watching community Christmas parades slowly evolve into Holiday parades, school Christmas vacation into winter break, and town hall crèches into snowmen, Christmas observers are revolting.

Among the recent reactionary signs:

• More than 800 lawyers are enrolled for the third year of The Alliance Defense Fund's Christmas Project initiative, which supplies legal aid to towns and schools nationwide that face challenges to their traditional Christmas celebrations. Last year, the initiative successfully defended Christmas displays on public property by the town of Cranston, R.I., and the school district of Bossier Parrish, La.

• During a Nov. 9 broadcast, FOX news commentator Bill O'Reilly launched the first volley in an all-out television-based offensive against retailers which shun "Merry Christmas" for "Happy Holidays," going so far as to list specific offending merchants that should be boycotted.

• After threatening a boycott of Wal-Mart stores in early November, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights successfully won concessions from the retail chain after an employee offered up his own explanation to a customer via e-mail for the store's policy of wishing customers "Happy Holidays" in lieu of "Merry Christmas." Wal-Mart stood by its all-inclusive "Happy Holidays" greeting, but did publicly apologize and promptly fired the offending employee.

• The Rev. Jerry Falwell and the conservative Liberty Counsel have launched a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign." Armed with 750 lawyers, the group promises to "reclaim Christmas" by filing suit against anyone who, in their view, limits the public celebration of Christmas. Reverend Falwell recently publically criticized the city of Boston for a reference on its website to the annual lighting of its "Holiday Tree."

• The conservative 150,000 member American Family Association has called for a boycott of Target stores for not utilizing the specific phrase "Merry Christmas" in their holiday advertising.

• A California organization called "The Committee to Save Merry Christmas" has garnered national media coverage with a grass-roots campaign to boycott Sears and Federated Department Stores Inc. for changing their advertising from "Merry Christmas" to "Season's Greetings."

The fundamental message of today's Christmas crusaders is not new; merely the societal context has changed. In the early 1950s, groups of clergy first began organizing against what they considered the disturbing commercialization and secularization of Christmas. While their efforts were largely confined to using the power of the pulpit, today's pleas are most likely to leverage the power of the judiciary and the court of public opinion.

In the end, the balance between sensitivity and celebration may always be elusive. A CNN/USA Today/Gallop poll conducted last year showed that Americans were evenly split on whether the public shift from "Christmas" to "Holidays" was a change for the better.

Such societal ambivalence exemplifies how the masquerading of traditionally held beliefs with insincere modern sensitivity ultimately serves no one well. When towns hold "Community Tree" lightings, do we all - majority and minority alike - not understand on a deeper level that it is really an old-fashioned "Christmas Tree" lighting redefined for the modern, politically correct era? Is it any big secret that the $435 billion dollar "Holiday shopping" bonanza currently under way is comprised primarily of "Christmas" gift buying? And when school children go on vacation for "winter break," do we not accept that it will always occur during Christmas week?

By softening the "Christmas" connection simply for December etiquette, we neither fully show sensitivity toward the views of the minority nor genuinely celebrate the traditions of the majority. We are left then with a sanitized holiday season, fraught with fears of politically incorrect missteps. Then, no one has a truly happy holiday of any sort.

Beth Joyner Waldron is a public policy analyst and writer.

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