As some Americans' holiday season draws nigh, secular humanists, Christians, and non-Christian believers should all reflect on what will make this season different from any before it. Depending on context, wishing someone "Merry Christmas!" can now function as hate speech. In Religious Right Wonderland, you don't wish "Merry Christmas" any more; you wield it.
After this essay went to press, Wal-Mart and Macy's announced that in response to boycott pressures they would make more references to Christmas in their advertising and the names of products. This is a regrettable retreat from a more inclusive policy to a less inclusive one, but we should keep in mind what Wal-Mart and Macy's did not do. Neither agreed to abandon the phrase "Happy Holidays," and each continues to encourage sales associates to use "Happy Holidays" as a default greeting, using specific greetings like "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" when the customer's orientation is obvious. Meanwhile other stores are sticking by "Happy Holidays." Declared Dawn Bryant, a spokesperson for the electronics retailer Best Buy: "The fact of the matter is, there are several holidays throughout November and December. We want to be respectful of that."
The War on Christmas continues, and despite the setbacks at Wal-Mart and Macy's, the non-Christians are still winning.
As I write, the first skirmish of the "War on Christmas," Year 2, has concluded. Rev. Don Wildmon and his ultraconservative American Family Association attacked national retailer Sam's Club for an early-season advertising piece that mentioned "the holidays" but apparently not, um, the C-word. Last year, of course, right-wing pundits Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson decried a supposed secularist putsch to drive Christianity from American public life, singling out Wal-Mart and Target for supposedly training workers to wish customers "Happy Holidays," not "Merry Christmas."
Some secularists, among them Barry Lynn and my Church-State Update coauthor Edd Doerr, dismiss the "War on Christmas" as just another lie the Right has made up to energize its base. With due respect, I disagree. There genuinely is a cultural struggle in progress, one for which "War on Christmas" is an apt, if imperfect, label. It's less a "war" than a constellation of social-justice clashes proceeding without either central leadership or unitary strategy. Contrary to O'Reilly et al., there's no offensive by the godless to extirpate Christianity from the culture. Rather, it is a low-intensity, many-fronted battle to win recognition for the fact that so-called Judeo-Christianity is already losing its dominance over American life.
The last six weeks on the calendar aren't just for Judeo-Christians anymore, and O'Reilly and his ilk absolutely loathe that. I think they're driven by nostalgia for lost privilege. Once upon an era, wealthy Protestants could bar Jews from their country clubs. In much the same fashion, rank-and-file Christians used to hijack American culture from Thanksgiving to New Year's without worrying about the feelings of anyone disinclined to share their merriment. Times have changed, but O'Reilly, Gibson, Wildmon, and the rest want the bad old days back. It should surprise no one that many Christian conservatives support them.
It's normal to feel nostalgic for cherished practices once treasured and now disgraced. Sometimes, being forced to give them up is a violation of rights. At other times, it means retracting a privilege that should never have been extended in the first place. Some Southern whites spent the 1960s pining for the old days, when they could lynch whom they pleased; few today would portray that as a right transgressed! Today, conservative Christians behold society falling from their faith's exclusive grip and, like their Southern racist predecessors, sigh, "There goes my everything."
Let's look more closely at what the anti-"War on Christmas" reactionaries are reacting against. For more than 150 years, American Christians have had to adjust to growing religious diversity, usually by progressively restricting expressions of their own faith in public places. By the mid-nineteenth century, Protestants learned to share the country with Catholics (no more insistence on King James as the only acceptable Bible). During the twentieth century, Christians learned to share with Jews (no teacher-led prayers to Jesus) and, later, atheists (no teacher-led prayers, period). Today's self-styled Judeo-Christians share America with members of and apostates from almost every faith on earth. Millions still grapple with the implications of that.
In my 1993 book, The Trouble with Christmas, I predicted that America would soon grow so religiously diverse that Christmas, at root a Christian festival despite many pagan and secular elements, might stop working as a compulsory universal holiday. Today, that prediction is coming true. Broadcasters, merchants, public officials, and individuals are responding by saying "Merry Christmas" a lot less and saying "Happy Holidays" a lot more. That's not a perfect solution-"Happy Holidays" still snubs Americans who observe no holiday between American Thanksgiving and Gregorian New Year's (see sidebar)-but it's progress.
It's the kind of progress that right-wing pundits find exasperating. Last fall, O'Reilly and Gibson teamed with televangelists James Dobson and Pat Robertson to slam Wal-Mart and Target for allegedly training personnel to say "Happy Holidays." Did those giant retailers ever forbid their associates to say "Merry Christmas"? They won't say. But one thing is clear-no pressure critics could mount would compel Wal-Mart or Target to stop wishing customers "Happy Holidays." In the same way, Sam's Club, also owned by Wal-Mart, stuck to its guns in the face of the American Family Association's August 2006 attack. With 16 percent of Americans religiously unaffiliated and millions more belonging to fast-growing non-Judeo-Christian faith communities, there's just too much non-Christian spending power out there for most merchants to retreat on "Happy Holidays."
If retailers ignored right-wing attacks, many rank-and-file Christians see in the War on Christmas foofaraw a license to "seize back the culture" before their holiday ends up (pardon the expression) gone with the wind. One letter to a small-town newspaper wrathfully demanded "a big national campaign to make the retail stores realize that most people are shopping for Christmas and take offense to the Happy Holidays greeting." Darkly, the writer warns that the promoters of "Happy Holidays" have "angered the silent majority!" Apparently, "majority" means everyone: "Think about it. Can you think of someone who does not celebrate Christmas? I have friends who are not Christians, but they have Christmas trees and sing Christmas carols" [emphasis in original]. If a better argument can be made for secular humanists enhancing their visibility by conspicuously boycotting the holiday, I don't know what it is.
Unlike Civil Rights-era Southern whites who ached for their lost, noxious privileges but never regained them, today's Christian conservatives might win their noxious privileges back. If they do, the cost to non-Christian minorities, religious and nonreligious, could be incalculable. Americans who are secular humanist-or Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist (and so on)-need to recognize that a war of sorts is genuinely in progress, a war to redefine American life. Pardon my reviving a mantra from the sixties, but we all need to engage in vigorous "consciousness raising" so that we will never fail to identify-and rebut-rhetoric meant to condemn or exclude us.
Yes, Virginia, there is a War on Christmas. And it's desperately important that the non-Christians win. Meanwhile, Christian Americans need to recognize how the ideologues on their right flank have poisoned the December air. Ours has become a never-never land in which no Christian can wish a non-Christian "Merry Christmas" without the implied "Up yours" ringing in the hearer's ears. Addressed to non-Christians, "Merry Christmas" is now code for "All you non-Christians go to the back of the bus! This is a Christian country. We own the last two sheets on the calendar. We're number one! By the way, you're all going to hell."
I suppose ironic congratulations are in order: O'Reilly and his wannabes achieved something that generations of Jewish, atheist, Muslim, and Hindu activists never dreamed of-indeed, never even attempted. They ruined "Merry Christmas."
And so, I wish "Happy Holidays" to those who are celebrating one-or more- this season. To those (like myself) who aren't celebrating anything, I wish you peace-though also, good luck finding any.
But nobody better wish me a merry Christmas.
As a default seasonal greeting, "Happy Holiday" beats "Merry Christams" hands down. It laudably acknowledges that, during the traditional holiday season (roughly, American Thanksgiving through Gregorian New Year's Day), millions observe some holiday other than Christmas. But "Happy Holidays" implicitly assumes that every Amercican is celebrating something during the five and a half weeks 'twixt Thanksgiving and New Year's, when in fact many people aren't. For those whose "season" includes no holiday, "Happy Holidays" serves the same dark purpose as "Merry Christmas." It's a snub, an unsubtle reminder to those out of step that everyone's "supposed" to be observing some holiday, any holiday, at this festive season.
So exactly whom does "Happy Holidays" rebuff?
Hindus. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, sometimes falls during the Western holiday season. This year? It was October 21.
Jains. Jains observe the nirvanna (final liberation) of thier prophet Mahavira on the same schedule as Diwali--October 21 again.
Buddhists. Buddihism has no universal festival during the "season." (Japanese Buddhists mark Rohatsu, Buddha's enlightenment day, on December 8, but that practice has little following outside of Japan.)
Baha;is, sort of. No major Baha'i festivals fall during the Western holiday season. There are, however, two minor ones: the Day of the Covenant on November 26, and the commemoration of the Ascension of 'Abud'l-Bahâ on November 28.
The Nonreligious. Oh yeah, us. While many atheists, secular humanists, and freethinkers continue to observe the Christmas or Hanukkah we grew up with--and some of us substitute alternative holidays like the Winter Solstice, HumanLight, or even Festivus--others (myself, for one) celebrate no festival at all during the majority's holiday season.
On the other hand, after snubbing Muslims for the last tow years, "Happy Holidays" embraces them anew in 2006. The Eid al-Fitr (Feast of Breaking the Fast) marks the end of Ramadan; for several years the holiday fell during the Western holiday season, and American naïfs, started thinking of it as "Muslim Christmas." But because Islamic holidays follow a lunar calendar of 354 days, year by year each holiday falls eleven days earlier on the Gregorian calendar. Depending which Muslim authority you listen to, Eid al-Fitr 2006 began at sunset on the day preceeding either October 23 or October 24, well before American Thanksgiving. (In fact, Eid al-Fitr has fallen outside the Western holiday season since 2004.) But as Eid al-Fitr moves ever earlier, so does Eid al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice, Islam's other principal festival). Eid al-Adha falls twice during 2006, once in January and again on December 31. So "Happy Holidays" is inclusive toward Muslims once again--as it will be for four more years, until Eid-al-Adha, too, starts to fall earlier than Thanksgiving. After that will come a long dry spell, until the thirty-three-year precession of Islamic holidays through the Gregorian calendar once again tugs Eid al-Fitr into December.
Clearly, "Happy Holidays" represents progress but not the final answer. We need a short, catchy way to say "Happy Holidays, if you're having any." Any ideas?
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry. This essay is adapted from his Editor's Introduction to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.