Dec 132005

I guess the best place to begin is to say the forbidden words, “Merry Christmas.”

So there, I said them. Even committed them to writing, and you read them. Did the rivers run red with blood? Is a horde of angry Jews or atheists pounding on your door (or mine)? Or, does the world look and feel pretty much like it did before?

I’m guessing the latter is most likely the case.

Given that, you’ll have to forgive my lack of enthusiasm for taking up arms in the “War on Christmas.” In case you hadn’t heard about it — in other words, in case you have a life — let me bring you up to speed.

Recently, conservative and evangelical observers have been loudly complaining about what they call a campaign to de-Christianize Christmas, to unmoor it from its origin as the birthday of Christ. They have a litany of complaints, but seem particularly vexed by word that some retailers have been instructing their sales people to greet customers with ”Happy holidays” as opposed to ”Merry Christmas.”

For example, the Alliance Defense Fund celebrates the season with an "It’s OK to say Merry Christmas" campaign, implying that the ACLU has challenged such holiday greetings. (As part of the effort, you can get a pamphlet and two Christmas pins for $29.)

The website WorldNetDaily touts a book claiming "a thorough and virulent anti-Christmas campaign is being waged today by liberal activists and ACLU fanatics." The site’s magazine has suggested there will be ACLU efforts to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency, fire military chaplains, and expunge all references to God in America’s founding documents. (Learn more for just $19.95 . . . )

Of course, there is no "Merry Christmas" lawsuit, nor is there any ACLU litigation about U.S. currency, military chaplains, etc. But the facts are not important to these groups. I was rocked back a bit in a Sunday School class I’ve started attending, when the topic arose, and there was this usual attack on the ACLU.  (Oh, and I also learned that NPR is listened to mostly by Jews.)

An attorney in the class even said that while he wouldn’t object to manger scenes and menorahs in the public square, he would be offended if a Muslim group wanted to add a display. (Because, as we all know, they are all terrorists.) He brought up 9/11 saying that Christians don’t go ‘round flying planes into buildings. He couldn’t, however, offer any real explanation for the Crusades other than they happened a long time ago. I brought the beating deaths of gay people by professed Christians, but that was just dismissed as fanatics who are not really Christians, just take up the mantle when they go to court.

I was very disappointed in the attitudes that came forward, in that I thought most members of this Methodist Church were a bit more intelligent and thoughtful. I take pleasure in challenging ignorance like that, and when the thing about “Christmas Music” and NPR came up, I pointed out they played religious music almost daily, given that many of the greatest works by some of the most accomplished classical composers (played daily on NPR), was religious music. I pointed out how I’d heard “Sheep May Safely Graze” just the day before.

It’s been a heated battle, and the complainers have not been guilty of understatement.

”A secular and atheistic jihad,” cries a guy named David Huntwork on the GOPUSA website.

”Frightening,” declares a traumatized Bill O’Reilly (caught selling Bill O’Reilly “Holiday” ornaments on his website).

”A war on Christians,” says John Gibson, who wrote a book on the subject (wonder what his take is on the book?).

And a writer on the WorldNetDaily website warns of the possible “persecution and outright criminalization of Christianity.”

They’re putting so much energy into defending Christmas that one feels downright churlish for pointing out that no one’s attacking it. All we’re seeing here is an ever more pluralistic society struggling to balance the faith of the majority with the rights and feelings of the minority.

Like so much about living in a Democratic society, it’s an imperfect process.

For instance, the 80-foot decorated spruce erected at the U.S. Capitol in early December has been designated the ”holiday tree.” That’s stupid. It’s a Christmas tree. And if — big if — it’s true, as some conservative groups claim, that a Wisconsin elementary school rewrote the lyrics to Silent Night to make them secular, somebody should be poked in the eye with a candy cane. That’s stupid, too.

On the other hand, the American Family Association is boycotting Target stores to force them to say ”Merry Christmas” and that’s hardly a sign of intelligence. How is the cashier supposed to know whether a customer is Christian?

More to the point, why is pluralism so hard for these people? Why does it make them feel so put upon? Often, depending on how pretty the cards are, I might purchase two types, and have no trouble sending a “Happy Holidays’ card to my Jewish friends and those I know to practice no particular faith. My other friends might receive a card wishing them “Merry Christmas.” It’s really not a huge burden to respect those that don’t believe as I do.

What’s offensive here is not the imperfect balancing of minority and majority. What’s offensive — also surreal and absurd — is the notion that Christianity, a faith claimed by 76 percent of all Americans, is somehow being intimidated into nonexistence. Some of the earliest Christians were stoned for their beliefs. In some parts of the world today, Christianity is a crime punishable by death. And the AFA is feeling persecuted because a sales clerk says “Happy holidays?”

That’s not persecution. It’s a persecution complex, and it is beyond just silly.

In my opinion, if the message of Christ and the hope of the Christmas message don’t overshadow the greeting I receive from a sales clerk, then a poor message it must be.

The greeting that matters was spoken by angels. The Book of Luke says they appeared before shepherds in a field: “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

I tend to focus my attention this Christmas on the message brought by Jesus to love one another and care for those less fortunate. I challenge the religious wingnuts to stop the silly charade and join me in that more worthy crusade.

Linus said it best. "That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

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