Holiday Target practice

kettlesIf you have picked up a newspaper in the past week or so, you have surely noticed that we are well into our culture’s annual Christmas Wars.

This is that magical time of year when lawyers on both sides of the culture wars get to earn overtime pay, making the world safe for secular menorahs and faith-neutral holiday trees. Meanwhile, many people who think of themselves as conservative Christians do their best to make innocent store workers feel guilty if their corporate bosses will not let them say “Merry Christmas.” Meanwhile, most churches are worn-out with “Christmas celebrations” a week or more before Dec. 25th — the first day of the 12-day Feast of the Nativity.

It’s a mess. It makes you want to fast and pray, or something.

Even with his snarky tone, I have to admit that Adam Cohen of the New York Times is on to something with his essay entitled “This Season’s War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else.”

Here’s the opening:

Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They’re for it.

The American Family Association is leading a boycott of Target for not using the words “Merry Christmas” in its advertising. (Target denies it has an anti-Merry-Christmas policy.) The Catholic League boycotted Wal-Mart in part over the way its Web site treated searches for “Christmas.” Bill O’Reilly, the Fox anchor who last year started a “Christmas Under Siege” campaign, has a chart on his Web site of stores that use the phrase “Happy Holidays,” along with a poll that asks, “Will you shop at stores that do not say ‘Merry Christmas’?”

Bah, humbug. The story that actually interests me this year is related to the Christmas wars, but actually has some content. It also concerns Target, Wal-Mart and a bunch of other people. It focuses, of course, on the decision by Target — perhaps honoring a request by gay-rights groups — to start enforcing its ban on solicitations outside its doors by “Merry Christmas” whispering bell-ringers at those offensive red kettles. The result is a PR professional’s nightmare in a competitive economy, which you can see by clicking here.

I wrote about the Salvation Army a week ago for Scripps Howard and mentioned some of this, while focusing on this organization’s battle to retain or regain some of its public identity as a church. Religion-beat veteran Ken Garfield of the Charlotte Observer also published a thoughtful column on this standoff that included the following:

… (For) some who view the bells and kettles as a symbol of Christmas compassion, the ban by Target rankles — especially after Katrina and the other disasters to which the Salvation Army has responded. The debate is also deepened by the fact that other retailers, such as Harris Teeter, welcome the Salvation Army to their front doors.

Charlotte’s Susan Chaffin shared her embrace of the Salvation Army, and a warning to retailers, in a letter to the editor after Katrina: “To deny their traditional places and opportunities is to deny their efforts and contributions to these and other needy people in America. So just remember, no bell-ringers, no me.”

saltargetSure enough, folks on the anti-Target right are cheering a recent dip in the company’s stock, while those folks at Wal-Wart are singing glad tidings (to the sound of Salvation Army bells).

Meanwhile, my friend Simon J. Dahlman at Milligan College recently, in his “Face to Faith” column, addressed a topic that I believe should get more coverate this time a year — the religion of commercialism and the sacraments that people consume at the mall. Here, friends, is the war at Christmas that matters the most and, yes, it is spiritual. Would that more churches were concerned about this. Dahlman writes:

“Consumerism serves as a form of religion,” says the Rev. John Kavanaugh, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches philosophy at St. Louis University. “The mall serves as the new parish church, the new gathering place. People go there to socialize. It’s a community center, centered on shopping.”

Kavanaugh, who has written several books that examine the complex relationships between American culture and religion, including “Following Christ in a Consumer Culture,” notes other similarities between religion and retail.

“It’s amazing how many products are associated with values and with self-esteem,” he said in a phone interview this week, rattling off brand names to illustrate his point: Boss, Freedom, Joy, Easy to Be Me.

I could keep quoting, but I suggest that you read it yourself. If you see similar stories on this theme, please let me know.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    A good story on this whole issue would be to deconstruct the “Target bowed to the gays” story that journalists–and bloggers–aopear to have bought and see if there is any truth to it.

    In what appears to be a fairly organized attempt by conservative pundits and conservative Christian groups to make this “who took God out of Christmas” story an annual whining event, they are pushing this story, again, that Target bowed to pressure from gays. The problem: no gay group has taken credit for getting Target to ban the Salvation Army and Target has consistently denied that was the reason for the rule. Sure, gay groups patted Target on the back for the move, but that doesn’t mean that gay groups encouraged the policy in the first place.

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  • Brad

    Does anyone know any good books on the subject of where our Christmas traditions come from?

    I just ordered a book called “Battle for Christmas” that’s gotten good reviews.

    I am of two minds on this topic. It annoys me to hear commercials that are profiting off the season yet are so afraid of “Christmas” that a jingle for Honda says “We wish you happy holidays” instead of “We wish you a Merry Christmas.”

    But then, maybe if “Christmas” is shunned in public, it will help those of us who understand the point of Christmas to celebrate it in a more simple, truly Christian way.

    A truly Christian celebration would happen to have the side benefit of depriving those companies of more of our money. :)


  • TK

    The Salvation Army is a church. When you donate, you are donating to a church. The Salvation Army does much more than help the needy and poor; they are a church. Read through their website to understand their doctrine.

    Also…before donating, check with your pastor (or even your mayor?) to see if there are needy families right in your own church, neighborhood, etc. Monies should go there first, I think.

  • Avram

    Brad, what makes you think that Honda — or anyone else who says “Happy Holidays” — is afraid of Christmas? There are, after all, a whole bunch of holidays aroudn this time of year: Thanksgiving, Eid ul-Fitr, Advent, Christmas, Hannukah, Yule, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, and maybe more that I don’t know about. Should Honda make a separate commercial for each holiday?

  • Brad

    Well, first of all, the fact that they used the tune and words for “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” so that the lack of “Merry Christmas” was all the more blatant, annoyed me.

    If they just said “Happy Holidays,” rather than change the words of a Christmas song, I think I’d have cared less. They have smart marketers, they can make up a new tune.

    It’s more that blatant “we won’t say it and you can’t make me, but we’ll take your songs” that really annoys me in this whole thing.

    It should also be pointed out that, while there are smatterings of people who celebrate lots of other holidays, in this country, 80% or 90% are celebrating the same holiday. It’s a fairly safe move to say “Merry Christmas” and most people who don’t celebrate it don’t seem to be offended by the phrase, realizing they live in a country where most do celebrate Christmas. It’s simple logic.


  • Molly

    The Christmas Crisis is pretty good for Fox News.

  • Molly

    A comment from the same source as above. How say you?

  • Michael
  • Jon S.

    Actually, the Honda commercial carolers are singing, “We wish you a happy Honda Days.”

  • Avram

    It’s a fairly safe move to say “Merry Christmas” and most people who don’t celebrate it don’t seem to be offended by the phrase

    Wait, first you were accusing Honda of acting out of fear, and now you’re telling them to do something safe?

    It seems to me that “Happy Holidays” is the safest move, since it ought to be appropriate for anybody celebrating a holiday around this time of year, whichis pretty much everybody. 100% is better than 80% or 90%, right?

  • Brad

    My main point is, if Honda wants to say “Happy Holidays,” fine, but they should come up with their own little songs, etc. and keep their mitts off Christmas songs (even if they are Christmas songs with on religious content, such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I have a particular problem with people/entities who appropriate Christmas songs, but are afraid to appropriate the actual word. It’s uncreative and, essentially, plagiarism (though I realize WWYAMC is undoubtedly in the public domain).

    However, if as posted above, they said “Happy Honda Days,” that is more clever and humorous to me and my opinion of the commmercial changes!


  • Brad

    The main point of my first post, incidentally, has been lost, and I still wonder: Does anyone know any good books on the subject of where our Christmas traditions come from?


  • Avram

    Which traditions, Brad?

    I haven’t made an actual study of this matter, but from various things I’ve read over the years, my impression is that a lot of the stuff associated with modern Christmas (and Thanksgiving) comes from the 19th century.

    I’d start with Wikipedia’s entry on Christmas, which has a section on customs, just to get a broad outline of the subject, then skip down to the list of references at the bottom of the page and investigate the books listed there.

  • Brad

    I’d be interested in something that traced all the way from the lack of any such celebration (back in the first 3 centuries) to the origins of the way we celebrate now (ie – how did the celebration of Jesus’ birth become the lieblook of our capitalist economy? :) ).

    Wikipedia is always a good place to start. I have “Battle for Christmas” coming, but it focuses pretty strongly on the modern period and might have more social science and less Christianity in it than I’d prefer (not that that’s not understandable).

    The irony, Avram, of our discussions is, while the “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” fight does irk me, I am considering looking at ways to jettison many of the current methods of celebration from my own Christmases, realizing they have nothing to do with “the reason for the season.”


  • Will

    Wrong about Eid, Avram. The Moslem calendar is pure lunar (leading to the disedifying spectacle of US Moslem organizations celebrating holy days on different days, because they could not agree on whose physical sighting of the new moon REALLY counted), so if one of their feasts shows up in December in a particular year it is pure coincidence.

    Try Ronald Huttons STATIONS OF THE SUN and THE RISE AND FALL OF MERRY ENGLAND. Full of information on just where seasonal “ancient customs” came from, along with repeated detonations of the “pagan survivals” which Everybody Knows.

    What really gets to me is for people who like evergreens and men in red suits, they are “pagan symbols” which were “stolen” by those reprehensible Christians, while to those who don’t they are “Christian symbols” which are “imposed” on everybody by those reprehensible Christians.

  • Brad

    Thanks for the tip! “Stations…” looks particularly interesting.

    Interesting point at the end there. :)


  • Avram

    Will, I looked up Eid as I was writing that, noticed that it came in November this year, and figured I might as well include it if I was including Thanksgiving. I should probably have included Halloween, since some stores put up Winter Holiday Season decorations in October.

    Is the red-suited Santa of pagan origin? I wasn’t aware that the Dutch Sinterklaas had any specific color of clothing associated with him, and if you look at depictions of Santa in 19th century advertising, he shows up with coats of various colors for a while, then eventually the red-coated version predominated. Was this a combination with some other myth?

  • Mitchell Hadley


    In answer to your question on books talking about the origin of Christmas traditions, an excellent book I’ve read is Karal Ann Marling’s excellent “Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday.” Marling is one of our best cultural historians, and she discusses Christmas traditions on many levels – their origins in Europe, their bring brought over to America, and the way in which our culture has adapted (and at times created) those traditions. Among other things, she covers the origins of Christmas cards, wrapping presents, miniature Christmas villages, window displays, and the Christmas TV special. A really excellent book, and it might be just what you’re looking for.

  • Brad

    Thanks Mitchell! I’ve seen that one mentioned as an alternative to another I was looking at, so I’ll check it out (2 independent mentions is usually a good sign :) ).


  • Joan O.

    What seems to be forgotten in a lot of the posts above is the fact that Christmas Day, December 25th, is a FEDERAL HOLIDAY, made such just after the Civil War by President Grant. When stores and ads and such cop out with “Happy Holidays,” they do so in opposition to a Federal law of sorts! And when they unabashedly sell Christmas goods, they need to acknowledge that the holiday for which those goods are purchased is Christmas–NOT just any old holiday. We have a “holiday” boat parade with “holiday lights” here in the Portland area. But if it’s just a holiday parade, why not have it at a more convenient holiday, say, July Fourth?

  • Jon S.

    … the irony being that the word “holiday” has just as much Christian overtone as the word “Christmas.”

  • Avram

    Joan: And when they unabashedly sell Christmas goods, they need to acknowledge that the holiday for which those goods are purchased is Christmas

    Not in my family, they’re not.

  • Will

    Whatever the origin of SC, my neo-pagan “friends” keep loudly insisting that he is “really” a Siberian shaman or something, and was “stolen” by nasty old us.

    As I tried to explain to a co-worker indignant at having to work on Martin Luther King Day, “Federal holiday” means that the US Civil Service gets the day off. Period. And even then, federal offices in the state of New York had to bow to the state’s refusal to change Veterans’ Day to appease the travel lobby. (One reference claims that the only “national holiday” in US history was the bank holiday ordered by FDR.)

    And happy Festivus to you.