Friday, December 02, 2005

The War on Christmas?

I have always thought of December 25th as "Christmas Day" and December 24th as "Christmas Eve". I never had the sense that the person who said, "Merry Christmas" was trying to slight or insult anybody who did not believe in Jesus. Though the day has religious significance for some, religious significance is not a part of the essence of the day. Atheists can decorate trees, buy presents for those he cares about, and leave the presents he gets carefully wrapped until Christmas. The day belonged everybody -- to those who attached religious significance to the day and those that did not.

I never thought about asking somebody to exclude items and objects from Christmas because those objects had religious significance to others. The Christmas Tree itself (or so I thought) was a relic of some ancient Pagan religion. I understand now that this earlier belief may have been false, but it still illustrates the idea that it did not even occur to me to be threatened by the idea of people including religious relics in their Christmas displays.

Yet, I am told that there is a "War on Christmas". Apparently, the way that some people such as Bill O'Reilly talks, a group of people somewhere got together and decided that they were going to do whatever they could to destroy Christmas. Like a convention of 21st century Grinches, they thought of all of the important things to do in this world, and put the destruction of Christmas at the top of the list. Now, all Christians must band together to defend themselves from this campaign to destroy their holiday.

What Really Happened

If I needed to offer a theory about what really happened regarding this "war on Christmas", I would suggest the following:

Some businesses recognized that not all of their customers are Christians. They do not want only Christians shopping at their stores. They also want Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Agnostics, Atheists, Hindu, Buddhists, and others to feel comfortable walking through their doors with their bank cards tucked neatly into their wallets. Many of these people participate in Christmas, even though they are not Christians. Somebody in the marketing department thought that "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" or some similar phrase would invite more of these customers into their stores as opposed to a competitor's store. This means more money, and more profits.

The same probably happened in schools across the country. There were teachers who recognized that their classrooms not only had Christian students, but students belonging to other traditions. They decided that they wanted to have a class party in which all of the students were made to feel equally welcome, rather than a party only for Christians from which others would feel excluded.

Throwing a "Christmas Party" devoted solely to the Christian tradition can easily have a feel much like that of having a birthday party for one of the students and telling one or two of those students that they are not invited. "This party is only for Christopher's friends so while we have our party we are going to send you to the next room. We will give you some homework that you can work on until we are done, then you can come back to the classroom."

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that there were a few teachers in this country who felt that a more inclusive class party was better than the exclusive, "What are they doing here?" party that certain religious factions seem to require.

Everything that I said about the class party applies to the office party as well. There may be those in the office who feel that the office party is only for us Christians and they should not be made to feel welcome here. However, it is possible that an events planner or two in this country thought that this was a little harsh.

In fact, some (many) Christians, actually like neighbors, classmates, and co-workers who do not share their religion. They may actually want to participate in a party where all friends are made to feel equally welcome. It is easy to understand that those Jewish, Muslim, or Atheist friends would not have much interest in attending a Catholic mass or something relevantly similar, and seek a secular gathering instead.

Of course, some Christians may be upset over the fact that they are equally welcome. It is certainly nicer to attend a party where one is a member of a group that gets special honors and a place at the head of the table. Those who lose this position when the teacher or corporate event planner decides that students and employees of all faiths will get equal consideration might even claim that they are being attacked in some way -- demoted, denied something that is rightfully theirs. To these people, there is simply no justice in treating a Christian like everybody else.

The way these people talk, there are secret schemes being hatched to outlaw Catholic mass as Christmas services. Laws are being written to fine or imprison anybody who even mentions Jesus. While padlocks and armed guards stand at the doors of every church to prevent entry, Christians are reduced to meeting in darkened cellars just to pass each other cards with the words "Merry Christmas" on them.

Perhaps some people enjoy the role of the persecuted victim. In their quest to role-play the victim they make up a reality that fits their fantasy. However, in the real world there are no plans to lock the churches and put them under armed guards. There will be no attempt to prevent any group of Christians from gathering peacefully to celebrate the holidays in whatever way they like. The persecution that these people fear exists only in their imagination - right where they put it.

In the real world, all we have is an attempt, from time to time, for a business owner, a schoolroom teacher, or a corporate events planner, to say "all customers/students/employees are equally welcome here; not just the Christians, but everybody."

That is not a sin.

Offensive to Christians

In the segment cited above, Bill O’Reilly and his guest, marketing expert Philip Nulman, got into a discussion over whether Christians are offended by a store or a sales clerk saying something other than “Merry Christmas.” Nulman said that Christians were not offended, while O’Reilly claimed that they were.

My question would be whether Christians had any moral justification for being offended. A legitimate offense arises from the fact that one was the victim of another person’s wrongful action. The wrongful action, in this case, is saying something other then ‘Merry Christmas’. This, for some reason, is supposed to be immoral – something that everybody is supposed to know is something that a person of good moral character would not do.

They are saying that a person of good moral character is somebody who assumes that everybody he meets is a Christian, refuses to acknowledge the fact that people with other belief systems exist, and refuses to treat people who hold those belief systems with dignity and respect. A person of good moral character, according to this argument, gives preferential treatment to Christians and regards others as them unworthy of consideration.

In fact, the opposite is the case. The person of good moral character does not make assumptions as to the religious views of the strangers he meets. He does not assume that they are Christian.

Rather, he treats the person in a way that respects the stranger’s religion, whatever that religion may be, until he has learned what that religion is. After he knows, he may make whatever statement is fitting for somebody with that religious preference. After he knows that somebody is Christian, it would be polite to say “Merry Christmas.” Before he knows, politeness suggests not insulting strangers by making assumptions as to their religious beliefs.

So, even if Christians are offended by those who do not presume their Christianity – by those who are willing to show respect for the fact that he might not be Christian – that offense is unjustified. It is the offense itself that is wrong in this case, not the action that causes it.


As I said at the start of this essay; I see no reason to be offended if somebody says "Merry Christmas". I have heard it enough times without the slightest twinge of offense, and have used it enough times as well. If somebody wants to go to the extra effort to make sure that I feel included -- that it is not just the Christians that are welcome at a store or a party but people of all beliefs -- I appreciate the gesture.

O'Reilly might be right; the Christians have the power to demand that companies claim that they are more special than customers of any other religion. Indeed, it may be prudent to give in to the whining of those who are particularly powerful and particularly adept at causing trouble. Sometimes, when faced with a whiny customer who threatens to throw a tantrum if she does not get sufficient attention and dotting, the recommended move is to appease the brat. This might be the best for a company to handle the so-called "War on Christmas". However, the power to demand special treatment does not prove that the complainer is anything other than a powerful but whiny brat.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

don jr.: Actually, regarding Cindy Sheehan, you are correct. If the President were to be under an obligation to meet with everybody who sits on his porch and complains about a policy, he would never have time to be President. Her request for a personal meeting was unreasonable.

In addition, casting the meeting as being symbolic of a meeting between President and all of the mothers of war dead would have been wrong. Those other mothers neither elected nor appointed her as their spokesperson.

Anonymous said...

I find the talk of "dastardly plots" to "wage war" on Christmas to be rather laughable. But to deny that there is a culture war afoot (and that anti-religionists have fomented it as much or more than the loonies on the fringe right) is also pretty silly.

I think Alonzo has conflated two issues here:

One is the "Merry Christmas" v "Happy Holidays"/"Seasons Greetings" issue which is really a non-issue. I agree with "boelf" that the cost of signage is partial explanation, and I agree with Alonzo and others that being inclusive is generally ethically superior to being exclusive. BUT:

There is also the issue of schools being forced - or not forced? - to remove Christmas from their premises. To remove such songs from their renamed "winter pageants" and to otherwise exclude Christianity from the popular holiday activities. Whether this is initiated locally or forced upon schools by ACLU intimidations (with our without the imprimatur of court orders), it is wrong.

Schools have become much more inclusive, adding Kwanza and Ramadan and Hanukkah - there really is no reason to exclude the holiday observed by 80-85% of the students.

Moving back to the commercial realm: I would have no problem with Honda advertising their Happy Holidays Sale - it has nice alliteration, and they were smart to capitalize on that much of it. But I definitely have a problem with them bowdlerizing a traditional Christmas song. The memorable alliterative effect will help me remember which car company offended me long after this particular ad campaign is over.

- GordonB

RebelYell said...

I do find the "Happy Holidays" crowd objectionable precisely because I don't think that saying Merry Christmas is in any way exclusive.

Our society has become unhealthily obsessed both with taking offense where none is meant, and with going to extraordinary lengths to dream up possible offenses which must be avoided. And in pandering to these trends, we exacerbate them.