Back before holiday greetings came under scrutiny, it was easy. Sometimes I would say, “Merry Christmas!” More often, though, I would say, “Happy Holidays!” because it applies to the whole season: Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s. Today, if I say “Happy Holidays,” I might be accused of secularizing the sacred; but if I say “Merry Christmas,” does it sound like I’m trying to proselytize?
It all started several years ago when a few prominent retailers purportedly required employees to wish shoppers “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas.” These over-anxious merchants then painted over their “Merry Christmas” signs to read “Happy Holidays,” putting the kibosh on spreading Christmas cheer. Why, you ask? I don’t really know, but I can guess: money. It’s always about money. I’d bet you an elf on a shelf that this greeting adjustment was meant to increase profits by attracting shoppers of other faiths and appealing to customers who don’t identify with any religion at all.
Now, I don’t know much about the retail business, but I think this decision was profoundly stupid. It’s pretty clear to me that the last person a shopkeeper wants to offend in December is someone celebrating Christmas. I mean, a high percentage—somewhere between 20 and 60 percent—of all annual retail sales are attributed to Christmas buying. Alienating these shoppers could lead to a serious financial shortfall.
Anyway, once word of this ixnay on istmasChray got out, media moguls began enlisting Christian soldiers to fight in the War on Christmas. Pretty soon, folks from throughout Christendom—Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, you name it—were moving beyond theological differences to join in this holy war. Bumper stickers appeared on sedans, pickups, and hot rods saying “Keep Christ in Christmas,” or “I still Celebrate Christmas” or “It’s okay to say Merry Christmas to me.” Soon you could buy clothing, accessories, and more emblazoned with these loaded messages.
Here’s what I think. Political correctness is a good thing. The idea is basically, “Think about your words before you say them aloud.” Who among us couldn’t benefit from that basic restraint now and then? Like many good things though, political correctness can go too far.
Take your roadside “Holiday Tree” vendor. Now, this person is in truth selling Christmas trees. I know this because I have Jewish friends; I have Muslim friends; none of them have trees up in their houses. Paying good money for trees that once grew in our mountains but now stand, freshly axed from their roots, bunched together under multi-colored lights—well that behavior is singularly Christian. Wait, I take that back. I have friends who are atheists. They buy Christmas trees too. But I don’t know anyone who buys a Hanukkah pine, or a Ramadan bush. Same thing goes for wreaths. I mean really: It’s not an Arbor Day wreath. It’s not a Kwanzaa wreath. Whatcha got yourself there is a Christmas wreath, plain and simple. So if you’re a seasonal foliage pusher, call them Christmas decorations—because that’s what they are. Or call it all “Holiday Greenery” if you want--it's your business.
That is what it is too: business. And since when was it retailers job to keep Christ in Christmas? What matters to corporations is money. So, if they are putting the name of Jesus Christ on something to make it sell, then I believe they are using God’s name in vain. Plus, I don’t know anyone who has come to a saving knowledge of Jesus because they looked up in Toys-R-Us™ and saw a “Christmas Discounts” sign; do you? (One more thing, I don’t think we can begin to guess what Jesus the Nazarene would do with this mess of affluenza and consumerism we’ve got going on in this country; but I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t want his name on it. Just sayin’.)
Years ago, my daughter and I were watching a Christmas movie when a Wal-Mart™ commercial aired. After advertising the prices that had just been lowered on Christmas must-haves, they signed-off promising, “Christmas costs less at Wal-Mart™.” I winced like I do when someone uses the name of God as a swear word. My daughter looked at me with 14 year old wisdom and said “Christmas doesn’t cost anything.”
She was right; it doesn’t—at least not in the way that commercial meant. Yet there are incalculable costs: the preparations for Christmas meals; the sacrifices we make to be with family; the practice time musicians invest in preparing annual concerts. These things can’t go in sale papers. They can’t be discounted. They can’t be put on glitzy signs in high-dollar department stores.
In order to Keep Christ in Christmas, we don’t need merchants to put the name of the holiday on their signs. Instead, we need to turn our own eyes away from the modern accoutrements of the season, and focus instead on the gift God gave us in God’s son Jesus.
“Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth (and in social media) Peace to All People!” Luke 2:14 (paraphrased)
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays
I preach from time to time at First Baptist Church of Weaverville. Here are my most recent sermons.
December 6, 2015, "Let There Be Peace," Luke 3:1-6, Psalm 126.
October 11, 2015, "From Affliction to Proclamation," Hebrews 4:12-16, Psalm 22:1-15.