The conflict shows up in quiet ways, all over the place, this time of year.
You see it in restaurants and stores, as waitresses pour your last cup of coffee, or shop clerks hand you your receipt. Suddenly, it's there, in their eyes — that quick re-routing of the seasonal synapse, reminding them to say, "Happy Holidays," and not… well, you know.
Orders from the boss, probably. Or maybe they just figured out, as we all do, what's politically correct or socially gauche, and edited themselves accordingly.
So you smile indulgently, or maybe gently trump their expression with your own, "Merry Christmas!" And you feel rather good about yourself, as you slip out of your booth or turn from the register to go — and just then, if you're listening, you'll notice: that song, playing lightly overhead, is "What Child Is This?" Or "Silent Night."
It's that way all through December. Ironies abound. The same stores that frown on saying "Christmas" play carols ‘round the clock. Leftists lecture us on the importance of keeping the season secular, or at least ecumenical — the only way to make it a holiday for everybody is to make it a day about nothing.
But once the lecture is finished, many of those same Scrooges slip into their cars and turn up Bing Crosby, crooning "Adeste Fideles" or "The Little Drummer Boy." They'll go home to set out angels and manger scenes and poinsettias, and fill card after card with scrawling, heartfelt prayers for peace on earth and love and hope.
And most will never trip over their own double standard, or marvel at the gap between what they profess, publicly, and what they yearn to believe, in their hearts.
In Miracle on 34th Street, the D.A., Thomas Mara, trying hard to plant Kris Kringle in a funny farm, is asked point blank by Kringle's lawyer whether or not he himself believes in Santa Claus. The doubting Thomas falls suddenly silent. His little boy is sitting in the courtroom. Locking up St. Nick is one thing — banishing his son's fond faith is another.
Something like that, I believe, happens in many a heart this time of year. Lots of people, for whatever reason, want to lock religious faith away and be done with it. Trouble is, they also yearn to keep some enduring hope alive — and, in the end, God is the only One sturdy enough to pin the hope on.
So there's the rub: "holiday" is too thin a gruel to feed a hungry soul, but "Christmas" carries implications many don't want to deal with. Changing seasons is one thing; changing your life is another.
Interestingly, even those disinclined to defer to the divinity of Jesus Christ concede that He was a remarkable man — that his teachings were unusually profound and that His life personified those teachings more consistently than anyone else ever has. So what's wrong with recognizing His birthday as His birthday?
Either Jesus truly is the Son of God, and Savior of the world — in which case we surely should celebrate His advent. Or else He was not. In which case, what harm is there in honoring such a magnificent life? Surely if we've cause to commemorate the national impact of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., we have more than ample reason to celebrate the international import of the greatest teacher and philosopher the world has ever known.
Put another way: to what aspects of Jesus' character and teachings — brotherly love, personal sacrifice, self-denial, kindness, generosity, concern for the poor, courage in the face of death, etc., etc. — do groups like the American Civil Liberties Union so vigorously object?
What are they so terrified that our children will come away with, if we single out Jesus in our classrooms, this time of year? If we breathe His name in a season's greeting? If we recreate the circumstances of His birth on government property?
Are any of the virtues He so richly embodied to be deplored in a citizen of these United States?
Mention Muhammad or Hare Krishna or Buddha or Gandhi in a classroom, and no one starts calling up lawyers. Carve a quote from any of them on the courthouse wall, and civil libertarians will sing of your tolerance and nod in sage approval. No one uses their name in a curse, or shudders to think someone might really believe what they taught.
But two thousand years after He walked this earth, the name of Jesus — the idea of Jesus — still strikes real fear into countless hearts.
More and more, in America, the question of whether it's okay to say "Merry Christmas" is becoming, for many, but a cover for the real question: "Is it okay to believe in Jesus Christ?"
And in classrooms and courtrooms, college lecture halls and shopping malls, military barracks and government buildings all over the country, "Happy Holidays" is our increasingly secularized society's brazen answer to that question.
Because if it's not okay to believe in Him at Christmastime — it's not okay to believe in Him the rest of the year, either.
Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor who held various posts in the departments of Justice and Interior during the Reagan Administration, is president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation. He is co-author with Craig Osten of the book The ACLU vs. America: Exposing the Agenda to Redefine Moral Values.