The war over Christmas: Who’s fighting and why?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Yes, Virginia, there is a Christmas war — or so the culture warriors would have us believe. It’s all about “happy holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” — the politically correct vs. the religiously correct. One side goes too far by renaming the Christmas trees, while the other side goes overboard by attacking people who thought they were just being nice. This year the Christmas crusaders appear to be winning: Holiday is out, Christmas is in.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert got the message. By order of the speaker, the decorated tree on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol — known in recent years as the “Holiday Tree” — will be rechristened “Capitol Christmas Tree.” Meanwhile in Georgia, state officials nearly started a skirmish by issuing “holiday greetings.” But 30 minutes later they redeemed themselves by re-issuing “Christmas greetings.”

Did the president and first lady miss the memo? The 2005 White House Christmas card arrives this week with “best wishes for a holiday season of hope and happiness,” but nary a mention of Christmas. Religious conservatives are outraged. William Donahue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights was quoted in The Washington Post as saying: “This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture.” Ouch.

While politicians are getting bashed for avoiding the “C” word, business owners are facing boycotts. After Jerry Falwell and others started a “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign,” down came the “holiday tree” banners at Lowe’s and up went the “Christmas tree” signs. And you’ll now see and hear a lot more “Merry Christmas” at Target, Sears, Best Buy and other retailers under fire for omitting Christmas. (Note the irony of committed Christians defending the commercial Christmas.)

Even though batteries of Christian lawyers are threatening to “save Christmas” by suing the “happy holidays” offenders, most of these fights aren’t First Amendment issues. It would only be an establishment-clause problem if government or school officials used the holiday to promote religion. But since Christmas is also a national holiday and courts tend to view Christmas trees and Santa as secular symbols, the government can put up decorated trees and call them whatever they like.

Private businesses, of course, aren’t the government (and thus not subject to First Amendment restrictions). So they’re free to promote or ignore religion if they wish. But merchants worry about alienating customers during the biggest shopping season of the year — and few things divide people more than religion. Unfortunately for them, trying not to offend one group has offended another.

John Gibson of Fox News, among others, sees the cultural shift from “Christmas” to “holiday” as a “liberal plot.” But it strikes me as mostly well-meaning attempts by educators, politicians and average citizens to acknowledge our diversity — and by business owners to sell as much as possible to people of all faiths and none. Let’s give these folks some credit for not wanting fellow Americans to feel like outsiders in their own communities.

Although other issues get lost in the silly, over-the-top arguments over innocuous holiday salutations and what to call the tree, Gibson, Falwell and other Christmas warriors do raise more substantive concerns. When government and school officials decide that being “inclusive” means including everything but the religious Christmas, they take concern for diversity to absurd lengths. Ignoring religion isn’t being neutral; it comes across as hostility.

According to e-mails I’ve gotten from parents this month, some public schools think they can avoid conflict by avoiding anything that smacks of religion. One complained about a school policy ordering all staff to refer to the Christmas tree as the “sharing tree” (though what that accomplishes isn’t clear since a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree by any other name). Another was upset when her child brought home artwork featuring Santa, Kwanza and Menorahs — but no crèches allowed. Most schools I know do better than this, but it only takes a few bad stories to paint all schools as part of a “war on Christmas.”

Some communities fall into the same trap by trying to celebrate the season by excluding Jesus. Denver was the poster child for this mistake last year when city officials banned a religious float from participating in the annual Parade of Lights. All kinds of “holiday” floats were approved, but not the one from a local church. After a major brouhaha, the city has seen the light. This year the Nativity scene will be featured on a float created by local Christian groups.

What schools and communities need to remember is that the First Amendment separates church from state, but not religion from school assemblies or holiday parades. Of course, city and school officials have no business promoting religion in December or at any other time of year. But allowing all private religious groups to express their faith at public events or in public spaces along with other groups doesn’t violate the Constitution. And educationally sound teaching about religion, including what Christians actually believe about Christmas or including religious music in the school concert along with other music, is not only constitutional — it’s a good idea.

If all sides take a deep breath and relax, we can work this out. But first we need to stop turning “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas” into fighting words. Declaring a ceasefire in the Christmas wars might be the best way to celebrate the season of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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