Season’s Greetings!

Although not quite reduced to a uniform mush, the Holidays are already a stew from which people select their favorite morsels — fewer and fewer of which have anything to do with the Birth of Jesus Christ.

Increasing use of the safely amorphous term “Holidays” signals a transformation of national consciousness. Remember when “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” was a nearly universal expression, with “Season’s Greetings” reserved for Jewish friends or business clients? But now, “Season’s Greetings” are exchanged in churches, even during that most tender of ceremonies, Midnight Mass.

Habits have shifted before, of course. Christmas wasn’t an important American holiday until the middle of the 19th century because so many Protestant groups, from the Pilgrim Fathers onward, deplored it. Festivity and hospitality at Christmas were largely confined to religious minorities and kept private. Strange as it sounds, the commonest way to acknowledge Christmas (and New Year’s) in public during our Early National era was by shooting guns and making noise.

But Victorian Christmas imagery filtered in from England, and Continental customs such as Christmas trees and gifts from St. Nicholas spread beyond immigrant groups. Popular magazines fostered these trends; merchants found them profitable. Splendid decorations — often featuring religious elements — drew shoppers to the new department stores.

By the 20th century, cities routinely decked their streets for Christmas and put Nativity scenes on the town square. And commercialization was well advanced — and decried — well before CocaCola ever signed up Santa Claus as its seasonal pitchman.

But what goes up can come down.

Burgeoning secularity is making the very word “Christmas” taboo in public settings. Every winter brings its crop of legal challenges to civic Nativity scenes. Where courts have permitted them, they’ve justified the decision by placing the creche within an array of other symbols for a broadly secularized “Holiday” celebration. In other words, Christ is only welcome if accompanied by Santa and Rudolf.

But when Wiccans and atheists demand to get in on the fun, communities usually give up and surrender Christmas to the private sphere. In Lafayette, Indiana, this meant displaying the Holy Family on a citizen’s truck parked beside the courthouse after they’d been legally banished from the lawn.

With or without lawsuits, Christmas is making public institutions nervous. Inexorably, Christ is being driven from the public square. For example, this year the police department of St. Petersburg, Florida is reported to have banned all Christmas decorations whatsoever and forbidden the use of “Merry Christmas.”

Although dissuaded by protest, two years ago the U.S. Postal Service recently proposed the idea of abolishing religiously themed Christmas stamps. This year, it went in the other direction by adding a commemoration of Ramadan to its line of Hannukah, Kwanzaa, secular and sacred Christmas stamps.

Many public schools now have “Winter Holidays” and hold “Winter Concerts” purged of carols. The schools of Scarsdale, New York, notoriously set a national standard for “Holiday” correctness by maintaining a totally Christmas-free zone. Nothing more sectarian than a snowflake is permitted in their classrooms — not so much as a candy cane or a cookie with red and green icing.

Public policies spill over into the private sector. Businesses worry that the mere word “Christmas” may offend customers or provoke “discrimination” charges from employees. Let one anti-Christian worker succeed in claiming that Christmas decorations create an “intimidating environment” and even garlands will go the way of the creche. Fear of appearing “insensitive” trumps all concerns. So Christmas parties become “Holiday” parties or may be forbidden entirely. One clever bunch of office workers (who must remain unidentified) plan to hold their forbidden Christmas celebration by calling it a “Staff Bonding Opportunity.”

Notice how pervasively “Holiday” has replaced “Christmas” in advertisements and the media. The actual word Christmas is still being used, however, in most special craft and cooking publications. But everywhere else, it’s “Holiday” gifts, cards, decorations, activities and entertainments that dazzle our eyes. Presenting Christmas as a Christian celebration is scarcely tolerable outside of historical or multi-cultural contexts.

These trends aren’t peculiar to the United States. In Japan, shoppers clamor for Christmas merchandise, not because the Japanese are discovering Christ, but because they like American “Holiday” motifs.

When the city of Birmingham, England, tried to replace its usual Christmas celebrations with an all-encompassing “Winterval,” the local Anglican bishop denounced those plans. Homogenization was unnecessary, he argued, because the city’s different faiths respect each other’s festivals. Christians, he said, have no difficulty wishing their Muslim neighbors “Happy Diwali.” Alas for seasonal Brotherhood, Diwali is a Hindu feast, not a Muslim one. And “Happy” wouldn’t seem quite the right word for the Muslims’ own Ramadan, which is time of rigorous fasting.

Nevertheless, the point the bishop was trying to make is valid. Social harmony doesn’t require abandoning our own traditions or annexing our neighbors’. While wishing others well, let Christians keep Christmas not only in our hearts and minds, but also on our lips. Keep Christmas Christmas to make the Holidays Holydays.

Sandra Miesel


Sandra Miesel is a medievalist and author. She has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography, and has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. She is co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code with Carl E. Olson and The Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy with Catholic journalist and canon lawyer Pete Vere. She holds master's degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois.

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