Merry Christmas or else!

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in December 2005.)

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, commenter John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term “Christmas shopping season” instead of the more generic “holiday shopping season”, since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written “Christmas” season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, former Fox News host John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O’Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to “save” Christmas by bringing back the greeting “Merry Christmas” and fighting those stores that have promotions saying “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O’Reilly replied “Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa.”

Meanwhile, the late Jerry Falwell, as always locked in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, said that he too was fighting to save that holy holiday and that he’ would sue and boycott groups that he saw as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon … wants to see “Merry Christmas” signs displayed prominently “if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season.”

And he isn’t worried if they offend people who aren’t Christian.

“They can walk right by the sign,” Wildmon said. “It’s a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation.”

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

It is truly pathetic to see grown people like Gibson and O’Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about something so trivial as to what is the proper thing to say at Christmas.

I just can’t take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people’s religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms.

When someone wishes me “Season’s Greetings,” I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or “Happy Solstice” or “Happy Festivus” or “Happy Newton Day” (the great physicist Isaac Newton was born on December 25) or any other greeting from any other religion on any occasion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me “Merry Christmas” and I reply “Same to you,” this is not an affirmation of Christian faith any more than “Season’s Greetings” is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one’s beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O’Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up, even if it is of dubious value in terms of ratings and garnering publicity.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow reports on the kind of petty and absurd incidents that this ridiculous hyping of the ‘war on Christmas’ spawns.

I was a grocery store, waiting in line to check out. The man in front of me approached the cashier with a cart full of groceries. The cashier said “Happy Holidays!” Well, it goes without saying that the man was furious at this. How dare she not say “Merry Christmas”. He literally stormed out of the store in anger, leaving his groceries behind for the employees to put away. As he was leaving, he said “I’ll never shop here again!”

No doubt the man saw himself as a ‘true’ Christian. Whatever our views on this topic, can we at least all agree to not take our annoyance out on employees such as shop clerks and cashiers and waiters? These people are usually underpaid and overworked (especially during this time of year), usually have no say about company policy on how to greet people, and are routinely treated with lack of consideration, if not discourtesy and outright rudeness. People should never use their power as customers to vent their spleen on such employees, who have no option but to bite their tongues for fear of losing their jobs.

If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying “Season’s Greetings”, why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say “Merry Christmas” instead. Such mandated greetings are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used.

If Bill O’Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say “Merry Christmas” to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say “Season’s Greetings”, then he is in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

The question becomes different when we talk about the government taking an official stand on religion because this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential or adverse treatment is to invite discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy.

You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter. It is like the ubiquitous “Have a nice day”. You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required.

POST SCRIPT: Communion Whine

It looks like this War on Christmas lunacy has spread to England. Marcus Brigstocke delivers the appropriate smackdown.


  1. Steve Smith says

    Your comments show that you miss the reason why the non-saying of “Merry Christmas” is important, and in your ignorance, you mock others calling their ideas trivial. The U.S. government was created by self-avowed Christians in the late 1700s. The American Revolutionists loudly declared that their Christianity was the basis of their idea of government. The U.S. Constitution writers stated that the document was meant for a Christian nation. The whole driving force behind the formation of the U.S. federal government was the morality created by the Christian faith. You write of that which you are uniformed, and then wonder why the nation around you falters. If the European or Indian or Chinese or Japanese “ways” work so well, why was there a “Great War to End all Wars”? And, why did that war have to be renamed in 20 years when an even larger, more far ranging conflict occurred called WWII? You can sneer at Christianity, but it is the foundation of the U.S. which has kept you and the rest of world out of WWIII for the last 60 years. Merry Christmas.

  2. Anonymous says

    This is such a difficult topic to argue, and the reason is because our belief-systems color our vocabulary and the semantics of the words we use. To boldly charge into the fray, keeping open the definition of such terms as ‘christian’ and ‘religion’ takes tremendous courage. The previous commenter is partly right; Christian principles were indeed central to the birth of the young republic. But Jesus liberated the moral and philosophical consequences of following him from what was up to then considered things that belonged to the purely religious sphere. Thus Jesus, and brave men in the church, took, and continue to keep, the moral and philosophical consequences of Jesus’ teachings outside the supervision of Religious authorities. This makes a profound difference in the interpretation of what it means that the republic was born within the context of christian principles.

  3. superlucky20 says

    Steve Smith, you gave a rambling explanation which didn’t explain at all why people should exclusively “Merry Christmas.” Happy Holidays!

  4. Steve Smith says

    Superlucky20: The federal government of the United States was thought up, proposed, planned out, documented in the constitution, and ratified by all of the original 13 colonies in the context of being based upon Christianity; Christian morals, Christian principles, and the 10 commandments were the foundation upon which the government rose up from. Therefore, having people in todays times arguing that saying Merry Christmas is “inappropriate” or that saying “Happy Holidays” is the equivalent shows how uniformed such people are, and also shows why the foundation of the U.S. is crumbling: Because people are unaware that the foundational nature of the constitution is rooted in Chritianity, so they are trying to revise it to their own liking. For example, the judicial branch has used court decisions to change the intent of the constitution, and our new president elect has stated the courts have not tried hard enough to “spread/redistribute the wealth.” As people “warp” the constitution to their own liking, the strength of the American way is being eroded. For example, how many people follow “The Golden Rule” these days? Many don’t even know what “The Gold Rule” is. Yet, trying to follow that rule is what made the American people, different, helped them develop personal self-respect and have some dignity, made communities strong, and made the nation strong. You will say I am rambling again, but, I’m trying to give you enough info (above)to see the point: Saying Merry Christmas should not be excluded from our vocabulary, as is being pushed for by many, because it is tied to the basis of our government. If people wish to say Happy Holidays, that’s fine, it’s their choice, but don’t ridicule those who choose to say Merry Christmas, and don’t try to restrict anyone from saying Merry Christmas.

  5. superlucky20 says

    Your Founding Fathers were Christian (some of them at least) and followed Christian values but IT WAS NOT THEIR INTENT TO MAKE AMERICA A CHRISTIAN NATION. What they wanted is a secular nation that is not prejudiced by religion. Read the following article:

    (As an aside, I’m not American, I’m from the Philippines. The Philippine constitution mirrored the American constitution for the establishment of a secular state. I applaud your country’s adherence to the spirit of secularism by actually putting it into practice. Something that we don’t bother with here. Churches meddle in state affairs all the time and at times are very successful. Our leaders don’t grasp the principle of the separation of church and state like yours do.)

    Your problem is that you want others to respect not your constitution but your religion. The fact that other people look down on your religion (or not think of it at all) hurts you. And so you turn to government to protect you. But it’s not your government’s priority to right religious grievances. Accept that fact and move on.

  6. says


    The post was not ridiculing those who say Merry Christmas. It was ridiculing those who rail against people who say anything else.

    You statement of the religious views of the founders is not supported by the historical record. It is true that they were religious in various ways but not in the way you describe. Many were deists. But whatever their religious views, they wanted to avoid the problems they had left behind in Europe where the state was officially entangled with a particular religion. The wanted complete religious freedom which is why they adopted the First Mmendment.

    The flavor of their views can be seen in a famous 1785 document called the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments which James Madison wrote in opposition to a bill introduced into the General Assembly of Virginia that was designed to levy a tax to support the hiring of teachers of religion in the schools.

    In his remonstrance, Madison presciently pointed out that although at any time all the people might believe in the same religion and thus feel that there is no problem with the state supporting it, once state support of religion was allowed it would not take much for narrower and narrower sectarian interests to jockey for control to give their particular beliefs pride of place at the expense of others.

    “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?

    Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.

    [E]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

    They wanted to avoid this arising in the US which is why they tried to keep the church and state separate.

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