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'Merry Christmas' returns: How conservatives are winning the Christmas war

'Merry Christmas' and 'Happy Hanukkah' are now protected speech in Texas schools. And, major retail chains are also turning away from 'Happy Holidays' in favor of 'Merry Christmas.' How did this shift happen? 

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Wishing students "Merry Christmas" is now protected in Texas public schools thanks to a recently minted Merry Christmas law, which allows students, teachers, and administrators to say traditional holiday greetings on campus.

"That allows parents, teachers, students and school administrators to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah in public schools without fear of censorship, litigation or persecution," State Rep. Dwayne Bohac told a local Austin ABC affiliate. Bohac, along with State Rep. Richard Raymond, authored House Bill 308, also known as the "Merry Christmas" law.

The bill, signed into law last year by Gov. Rick Perry, allows religious scenes and symbols, like a nativity or Christmas tree, to be displayed on school property. It also allows schools to teach about religious holidays, including their history, and include religious references and music in school performances.

“During this time of year, it is important to remember what we're celebrating and what we're grateful for," Rep. Bohac said in a statement.  "I’m proud to stand in defense of Christmas and traditional winter holidays, and I continue to urge other states to join our effort to stop the overreaction by governmental entities regarding Christmas and Hanukkah.”

Legislators in Oklahoma and Louisiana have proposed similar bills. But some say this law is unnecessary: Federal court rulings and US Department of Education guidelines say public schools already have the right to erect holiday displays with religious themes under certain circumstances and that students and teachers can greet each other with “Merry Christmas.”

But the Merry Christmas movement doesn't end in Texas. In fact, the The Merry Christmas bill is part of a Christmas comeback of sorts, a larger political trend promoting the re-recognition of Christmas and the religious trappings of the holiday in lieu of politically correct greetings like 'Happy Holidays.'

It's a trend driven largely by the political right, with conservative personalities like Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin leading the charge. O'Reilly has publicly and frequently railed against the so-called "War on Christmas" for years,"calling for an end to the "Happy Holidays Syndrome," which he calls "an insult to Christian America." In 2013, Palin published a book on the subject, the much-praised and ridiculed "A Happy Holiday IS a Merry Christmas."

In recent years, the campaign to reinstate Christmas has targeted businesses, shaming those who have replaced 'Merry Christmas' greetings in their stores and sales circulars with 'Happy Holidays.' The American Family Association's naughty list each year ranks major retailers based on how much they include "Christmas" in their December advertising, and encourages its members to boycott those on the "Companies Against Christmas" list.

This year, Lowe's, Walmart, and Hobby Lobby received the organization's 5-star rating for "promoting and celebrating Christmas on an exceptional basis." But Barnes & Noble, Family Dollar, and Pet Smart, among several other stores, landed on the "naughty" list for using the word Christmas "sparingly," and not recognizing the holiday as a company.

The organization's campaign has worked. In the past five years, the group has seen the percentage of retailers recognizing Christmas in their advertising rise from 20 percent to 80 percent, according to Randy Sharp, director of special projects at the American Family Association. One clothing retailer that changed its policies – thanks in part to the organization's campaign – was Gap Inc., which sent a letter to the AFA explaining its new policy.

"Starting today, every Gap Outlet window will have signs that say “Merry Christmas” along with Christmas trees and wreaths throughout their stores," Bill Chandler, Gap Inc.’s vice-president for global corporate affairs, said in a personal letter to Buddy Smith, executive vice president of the AFA. 

Today, just eight retailers are left on the AFA's naughty list.

It turns out a majority of Americans support the Christmas comeback trend. When asked whether they prefer stores and businesses to greet their customers by saying “Merry Christmas,” or “less religious terms such as ‘Happy Holidays’ and ‘Season’s Greetings,' 57 percent of Americans picked "Merry Christmas," according to a Pew Research Center survey. Some 27 percent picked less religious terms.

However, when “it doesn’t matter” was added as an option, that answer drew roughly the same amount of support as “Merry Christmas." Some 42 percent of respondents said they prefer “Merry Christmas,” 12 percent preferred the less religious terms and 46 percent said it doesn’t matter.

Perhaps not surprising to followers of O'Reilly and Palin, the split broke down neatly on political lines. Republicans strongly prefer the Christmas greeting, according to Pew. When the phrase "it doesn't matter" was added as an option, 63 percent of Republicans said they still preferred "Merry Christmas," while only 5 percent chose "Season's Greetings," or "Happy Holidays," and 32 percent said it didn't matter. Among Democrats, 28 percent said they preferred "Merry Christmas," while 17 percent opted for less religious greetings, and 55 percent said it didn't matter.

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