What happened to saying “Merry Christmas”? Is the move to saying “Happy Holidays” instead a good thing?
On the hit CBS-TV drama “The Good Wife” we’re in the offices of Illinois’ governor-elect as his top aide scans a hallway and angrily barks a Yuletide order: “Holiday decorations! Not Jesus! Holiday!” Bruce Tinsley’s satirical comic strip “Mallard Fillmore” carries this TV announcement: “The following Christmas special actually mentions Christianity. Viewer discretion is advised.” Another “Mallard” strip has a mother reporting that her son’s school phoned with a complaint: “He just isn’t getting into the Winter Solstice pageant spirit.”
Speaking of which, the Episcopal Church’s New York City cathedral will honor non-Christian Americans and pre-Christian Europeans with its annual “Winter Solstice Celebration” (reserved seats $90), broadcast by National Public Radio. Potential attendees are assured that this “holiday alternative” is “secular” and “a contemporary take on ancient solstice rituals, when people felt a calling to come together on the longest night of the year to welcome the return of the sun.” Days later, the cathedral will also welcome the Son.
Regarding Mary’s specific query, sensible person-to-person etiquette seems to advise saying “Merry Christmas” to religious Christians, “Happy Hanukkah” to religious Jews (though the two holidays didn’t coincide this year), and “Happy Holidays” to adherents of other faiths, and touchy secularists, and people whose religious sensitivities are unknown. That’s the easy part. But clever TV scripts and cartoons indicate the issue is far broader in an increasingly secularized and multicultural America.
Church leaders, whether conservative or liberal, generally express less angst about American society downplaying Christmas than cultural conservatives like Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. For years he has complained that stores and schools and government agencies appease “secular progressives” by shunning “Merry Christmas” and everything else related to the C-word. Enlisting in the cause is former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in her new book Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. She asserts that the “war” is “the tip of the spear in the larger battle to secularize our culture.”
Liberal and secular folks on the opposite side think “Happy Holidays” best suits American pluralism and pooh-pooh the war as trivial or, as expressed by New York Times pundit Gail Collins, an “imaginary” problem that’s exploited to foment “seasonal victimhood.” Tell that to public school music teachers in Rock Hill, South Carolina; Wausau, Wisconsin, and Bordentown, New Jersey; Anno Domini 2013. School administrators in all three towns scrapped traditional Christmas carols at December concerts but protests then forced them to back down.
The conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, an active force in these disputes, sent 13,000 letters informing public schools that “every federal court that has examined the issue has determined that including Christmas carols and other religious music in school choir programs fully complies with” the Constitution’s ban on government “establishment of religion.” A notable 2007 accord on religion in public schools, endorsed by a wide range of educational and religious organizations, approves recognition of religious holidays that fulfills a secular educational purpose, so long as religious celebrations are avoided. (Click here for the .pdf)
What about those public Christmas tree displays?