“Merry Christmas,” the “plastic reindeer rule,” and all that

MARY ASKS:

What happened to saying “Merry Christmas”? Is the move to saying “Happy Holidays” instead a good thing?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

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.

‘Tis the season of the “war on Christmas” and the war on the “war,” and the war on the war on the “war.” 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. See www.freedomforum.org/publications/first/findingcommonground/B08.Holidays.pdf

What about those public Christmas tree displays? O’Reilly proclaims that “no intelligent person could possibly see a secular display of Christmas as an imposition of religion. A Christmas tree is a secular symbol. It has nothing to do with Christianity.” True, the trees do seem blandly secular to most Christians, but some Jews may sense hints of Christian triumphalism.

The U.S. Supreme Court, an arbiter of what’s socially as well as legally acceptable, has muddied matters. Samuel Alito wrote before he became one of its justices that “it is not easy to determine whether particular displays satisfy the Court’s standards.” The nation’s highest court decided by a 5-4 split (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984) that this city-owned  assemblage in Pawtucket, R.I., did not violate the Constitution: Nativity scene, Santa Claus house, reindeer and sleigh, candy-stripe poles, animals, colored lights, and generic “Season’s Greetings” banner — but no Hanukkah menorah to honor Judaism. Journalists joked that adding secular symbols to make religious symbols legal is the “plastic reindeer rule.”

In County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989), a Supreme Court majority of 6-3 permitted Pittsburgh’s collection of Hanukkah menorah (explicitly religious), Christmas tree (but no Nativity scene), and sign saying the city salutes “liberty.” Allegheny also outlawed by 5-4 a Nativity scene plus greenery, plaque noting Catholic donors, and banner with the angels’ New Testament words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” (“Glory to God in the highest!”). Too Christmas-y. A federal Third Circuit appeals court ruling by Alito outlawed the customary Christmas tree plus Jewish menorah displayed by Jersey City, New Jersey, but approved the city’s amended Christmas tree with added Kwanzaa symbols, Nativity scene, Santa, Frosty the Snowman, and signs celebrating “diversity” — but with no Jewish item. Go figure.

The Guy joins untold millions irritated by the commercialized Christmas with shopping ads and gooey music extending ever backwards toward Labor Day. But let’s all admit what’s going on here. Along with Santa and Frosty and all that, the world’s largest religion is looking back 2,000 years to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The Guy will leave it up to city councils, school boards, judges and merchants how to maneuver around the obvious.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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