Peace on Earth? Forget it. Nowadays, Christmas is a battlefield in the culture wars. "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" has come to mean that there are endless arguments about nativity scenes, Santa Claus and reindeer on public property, Christmas carols in public schools, and the greeting "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays."
"Arguments" is, perhaps, too polite a term. These days, we can't argue about anything without name-calling, hyperbole, paranoia, and crude stereotyping. Christmas is no exception. One side sees a satanic peril in a store clerk's "Happy Holidays" greeting; the other sees a theocratic menace in a Christmas carol sung at a school concert.
On one side, we get lurid tales of political correctness run amok, of nothing less than a secularist crusade to expunge all traces of Christmas and Christianity itself from the public square. On the other side, we get counterclaims of a politically motivated hysteria about a mythical war on Christmas, with the ulterior motive of shoving the religious right's social values down everybody's throats.
The excesses of multicultural sensitivity do exist. In my home state of New Jersey, the South Orange-Maplewood school district banned even instrumental versions of Christmas carols from school holiday concerts. (One Jewish student who plays in a high school band in Maplewood told the Associated Press the ban was "silly.") New York City's public schools bizarrely permit menorah displays, which supposedly have a secular element, but not nativity scenes. In some towns, there have been attempts to banish even recognized secular festive symbols such as the Christmas tree and Santa from public grounds.
The hysteria about "Christmas under attack" is equally real, and equally silly. At the conservative website Townhall.com, one Dr. Donald May thunders that the new grinches want Americans to "accept the abolition of Christmas, close down our churches, and remove the crosses from our cemeteries." Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly refers, with a straight face, to "the media forces of darkness" attacking "the defenders of Christmas" (such as O'Reilly himself). He also warns that "the traditions of Christmas are under fire by committed secularists, people who do not want any public demonstration of spirituality."
Let's put things in perspective. Even the most far-reaching efforts to stamp out religious expression in "the public square" affect only government property. No one is seeking to stop churches from displaying nativity scenes on their front lawns or homeowners from putting up religiously themed decorations. If some private businesses such as stores decide to stick to secular holiday displays and salutations, that's their choice.
"Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays" may come across as bland and politically correct. But as James Lileks documents on his blog, the shift toward such nonsectarian greetings actually began in America in the 1950s, not as an attack on religion but in acknowledgment of an increasingly diverse society. At a recent press conference, President Bush wished everyone "Happy holidays" twice and never mentioned Christmas. He must be in on the left-wing plot.
Those Americans who don't celebrate Christmas obviously have to be tolerant of the vast majority who do; but they also have a right to a public square which does not loudly tell them they don't belong. It's worth noting, too, that quite a few non-Christian Americans celebrate Christmas as a cultural tradition, and being inclusive toward them is a good thing. Meanwhile, many Christians are genuinely concerned about the secularization and commercialization of the holiday. But for those who truly want to "put Christ back into Christmas," the answer is in giving more time and attention to religious and charitable activities, not in demanding more Christian symbolism at the place where you shop. Macy's is not a temple.
Of course, the battle over Christmas isn't just over Christmas; it's part of the larger divide between liberal secularists and religious conservatives. Passions over such issues as same-sex marriage, abortion, and the teaching of evolution in schools are played out in clashes over creches. On all those issues, there is precious little effort by either side to understand the other, and precious little respect for the other side's beliefs.
And so the Christmas wars are likely to continue, even though politicizing a religious holiday is surely just as bad as commercializing it. Dr. May's column at Townhall.com ends with the exhortation, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fight." To this, one can only say: God help us, everyone.