Merry Christmas

and happy holidays.

(I’m testing the theory that a potentially contentious post can be defused via a boring title and first line. As Principal Skinner would say, “Prove me wrong, kids! Prove me wrong!”)

So in my Sunday School lesson this week about strengthening our communities, more than one class member commented on the need to stay on top of what was happening in the community so that unrighteous developments don’t take you by surprise. The same type of example was used more than once: that Target has banned references to Christmas (which is apparently half urban legend) and that the local tree lighting ceremony in Austin now involves a ‘holiday tree’ instead of a ‘Christmas tree’ (which report I can neither confirm nor deny). The conclusion was that these are very bad, essentially Christ-denying developments, which the commenter would have liked to have known about in advance so that s/he could have expressed support for keeping the word ‘Christmas.’

But I’m conflicted about that. Genuinely conflicted.

(1) Have you ever had a spiritual experience because the banner encouraging you to buy overpriced junk in a box store said “Christmas”? Do you think non-Christians are inspired by those same banners to reconsider their affiliations? I didn’t think so. Maybe it would be better to leave His sacred name out of certain things.

(2) Should we make a distinction between what a store does and what the city does?

(3) Does it matter that Christians are the majority? The largest grocery chain in Central Texas, H.E.B., always runs special ads for Jewish and Muslim holidays (as well as Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, and probably a few others I am forgetting) and I don’t think that anyone complains about those. Should they?

(4) Is there something to be said for us, as Christians, respecting the rights of minorities by not acting as if everyone shared our celebrations? I need to confess that before I joined the Church, references to Christianity that assumed it was an unquestioned norm used to make me think that Christians were a bunch of arrogant jerks. (I’m not saying that I was right to think that; I’m just suggesting that that is how some people feel.)

(5) Has Christmas become so ubiquitous that it is incorrect to think of it as a Christian event anymore anyway?

(6) I realize that (1) through (5) above probably make it sound as if I have no problem (and possibly support) the removal of references to Christmas. That’s because part of me does. But the other part hates the fanatical removal of references to religion from every facet of public life and to the extent that deChristmasization is part of that, I think it is a bad idea. I also seriously doubt that Target’s decision was the result of, say, a massive outpouring of complaint from their customers but rather the result of one over-anxious mid-level manager who didn’t want to get anyone upset and so self-censored too aggressively. That’s no way to make decisions.

(7) We could also talk about school districts having Winter Break instead of Christmas vacation and school choirs singing everything but Christmas carols at their Nondescript Holiday of Your Choice Concert. Not to mention creches on public property. In other words, this isn’t an isolated issue but a small skirmish in the larger battle over the role of Christianity in public life.

How, as Latter-day Saints, might we think about this issue?

36 comments for “Merry Christmas

  1. As a related comment from a lurker, the usual solution proposed to these problems (boycott your local Target) is problematic. Being a former Target employee, this is what will happen if you organize such a boycott: the low-wage employees of your local Target will be scheduled to work fewer hours and will end up with lower paychecks. Scheduled payroll hours are directly related to weekly sales figures. Nothing else will realistically happen, since the Target national headquarters isn’t really going to notice. Now, the people who work at Target are often those who really need every dollar they can get… so causing them to earn less may not be the best solution.

  2. Chris B–

    Thanks for your comment. A related story: one of the hot issues when I was in high school was boycotting South African companies until they changed their policy of apartheid. Just a couple of years ago, we invited to dinner a man visiting our ward from South Africa. I couldn’t resist asking him what black South Africans thought of these boycotts. He confirmed your (and my) suspicion that all they did was hurt working people.

  3. Julie–I have been troubled in the past by comments made by members lamenting the “worldliness” of the world; the examples I have heard about most are “holiday” displays and prayer in schools (or not).

    Truthfully, I have little interest in what my city, store, or school does regarding these issues. I would like for them to take the path of least-offense for the greatest number of people. My concern is my family. I want my family to know about Christmas and prayer. I want them to hold their beliefs dear when they are shopping and while at school. They can do this no matter what Target employees say as I pay them; we can pray wherever we are. I teach them in our home, not outside. As long as I can continue to do so (and I forsee no change in that), I am satisfied. Why get worked up about others, when I and my family have room for improvement ourselves?

    As for bland, non-religious music in “winter” concerts? Not thrilling. I think most directors get around this with balance. I had an experience at a school that was 97% african-american, which apparently translated as 100% Christain to the music director. For their concerts, she would direct one secular piece and then turn the concert over to a local minister/musician who directed the rest of the night of Gospels. I thought that this did a disservice to the students. First, it severely limits their exposure to music to one genre. Second, it clearly alientates the few students not interested in singing all gospel all the time (like the 3 Indian families at the school). It would have been better (in my eyes) to sing a few gospel songs and move on.

  4. Julie,

    Thought provoking. I think people become unglued because there is a lot of tradition associated with Christmas. For the season to be a success, it seems the traditions of last year must be followed. The very act of changing anything to do with Christmas causes grief for lots of folks. For people who grew up with a employee-generated Merry Christmas! at the end of each shopping excursion, the current trend does reveal quite a shift. I am therefore with you in the “conflicted” camp. I’ll try to engage more of your substantive questions later. Short answers:

    1. yes to the last part, it would be better
    2. yes
    3. no to the last question
    4. yes
    5. yes to the gift giving and receiving aspect

  5. “Do you think non-Christians are inspired by those same banners to reconsider their affiliations?”

    No, but I think Target is hoping they will be inspired to buy something.

  6. Derek, you may have meant that tongue-in-cheek, but it made me realize something: Wouldn’t using His name to encourage people to buy junk border on priestcraft and/or blasphemy?

    MDS, thanks for that link. He said it much better than I did.

    ESO, I agree.

  7. Oops, I misread your point #1 and thought it said “holiday” instead of “Christmas”. I guess in my mind they mean the same thing, but I think Target is trying to, um, target non-Christians in their holiday campaigns by using the word “holiday”.

    “Wouldn’t using His name to encourage people to buy junk border on priestcraft and/or blasphemy?”

    Saying “Jesus wants you to buy this” definitely would.

  8. Oddly, I’ve been to school concerts where (C)Hannakuh songs were sung, Kwanzaa songs were sung, and New years songs were sung. But the only “Christmas” ones were tunes like “Happy Holidays” that are rigorously secular.

    I’m never sure what to think of that, except that they likely don’t realize the signal they are sending is “the only people we can get away with excluding are christians.”

    I realize in the past it’s been the complete opposite, but I’m not a big fan of affirmative action, in the workplace or the music concert.

  9. I don’t think Target is too worried about Priestcraft–they are just trying to appeal to a broader group of people. Target also kicked out all Salvation Army-type bell-ringers from their stores.

  10. One day in October, as my son and I stood in line at the grocery store with our arms full of bags of little Snickers bars, we decided that one of the things that we like about Halloween is the guilt-free aspect. There is no religious significance, hence no guilt for not doing this or that enough, not spending enough time on the “real” reason for the holiday because the present buying or egg hiding took up all our time and energy.

    Not that I don’t enjoy the religious aspect of Christmas and Easter, that really is by far the most enjoyable element. But if this Happy Holiday trend has the effect of making the secular celebrations more clearly divided fron the religious, thus giving Christmas back to the Christians, maybe Christmas as a religious holiday could be more fully about the birth of Christ without the watering-down we do now to try to appeal to everyone.

  11. C Jones,

    Funny you should mention that. In October, my 4yo asked me, “Mommy, what’s the true meaning of Halloween?” and refused to believe me when I told him there was none.

  12. Oddly, I’ve been to school concerts where (C)Hannakuh songs were sung, Kwanzaa songs were sung, and New years songs were sung. But the only “Christmas� ones were tunes like “Happy Holidays� that are rigorously secular.

    I don’t find this offensive to Christians, especially when they/we are in the majority, I find it potentially offensive to those who celebrate Kwanzaa or Hannukah, because it represents a kind of tokenism that claims diversity on the surface but actually reinforces the “Othered” status of non-Christian traditions by singling them out.

    On a related note: anybody see Saturday Night Live last weekend? In a spoof of the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting, the “NBC Holiday Choir” sang some “faith-neutral” holiday songs.

    Silent Night:
    Silent Night, regular night…
    “Random infant so tender and mild…”
    “Sleep in comfortable be-eds, sleep in comfortable beds.”

    The best was the faith-neutral version of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah:
    Hoooow, ya doin?
    Hooow, ya doin?
    How ya doin? How ya doin?
    I’m doin’ just fine!”

  13. I’ve gotten a few emails from family members and ward members about this very topic, some with petitions attached. (If people want to sign petitions, aren’t there better things to worry about! There’s a crisis in Darfur for heaven’s sake.)

    I see nothing wrong with Target wishing to be more inclusive and include everyone who might celebrate a holiday during this time of the year. I can’t see getting your panties in a bunch over a store recognizing that more people than just Christians enjoy the winter holidays and may need to shop for presents. I have two friends who are “cultural” Jews, but still love getting a Christmas tree and buying presents. They’ve adapted the holiday to suit their needs, and I think this is fine. After all, we stole it from the pagans.

  14. I’ve just moved to Malaysia, and although the country is politically Muslim, the celebrations are all inclusive. Recently we had Hari Raya (the ending of Ramadan) and Deepavali (a Hindu holiday) on overlapping dates. Festivities and celebrations were trumpeted with equal excitment. Many signs proudly declared “Happy Deepa-Raya” combing the names of the two religious holidays. I wondered about Christmas. Sure enough, things are awash with Christmas decorations and messages. Sure, most of it is secular in nature (Santa Claus visits at the Mall), but it’s amazing how much joy everyone gets out of these diverse religious celebrations. Last weekend I was *at* the mall when I walked by two Muslim women in complete head scarves, smiling and getting their picture taken by another Muslim woman in front of a decorated Christmas tree. Evidently, Chinese New Year is a huge blow-out for the Buddhists and we have a week holiday for that as well. All the religious holidays are treated with equal respect for the locals who are celebrating them. I wonder why America goes out of it’s way not to offend by eliminating the “offensive” rather than not-offending by being all-inclusive?

  15. Does Target or anyone else using Holidays instead of Christmas in any way ruin my celebration of Christmas? No. So do I care what the banner says that is hanging above the store entrance? No. I’ve noticed this becoming a bigger deal over the past week on Fox News (specifically Bill O’Reilly) and wonder if this is really the most important thing people can be focused on right now.

  16. Those interested in this sort of thing may like reading James Lileks’ commentary on Christmas ads in his newspaper’s archives going back 80 years. Scroll down to where the ad reproductions start.

  17. Julie – Thanks for this thoughtful post. It’s good to discuss this issue in a calm discourse rather than the shrill voices of those who are most vocal about the issue. My personal feelings are that way too much is made of commercial stores making such decisions when our focus should be on so much more than the commercializtion of Christmas – or in other words, worrying if the stores at least symbolically support our religious perspective. I would say that the best thing we could do at this time of year, or any other time for than matter, is to follow the advise of our Prophet:

    “Now, my brethren and sisters, the time has come for us to stand a little taller, to lift our eyes and stretch our minds to a greater comprehension and understanding of the grand millennial mission of this The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is a season to be strong. It is a time to move forward without hesitation, knowing well the meaning, the breadth, and the importance of our mission. It is a time to do what is right regardless of the consequences that might follow. It is a time to be found keeping the commandments. It is a season to reach out with kindness and love to those in distress and to those who are wandering in darkness and pain. It is a time to be considerate and good, decent and courteous toward one another in all of our relationships. In other words, to become more Christlike.” Ensign May 1995

    It seems that our first obligation is to find ourselves practicing Christianity before we criticize others for not doing so. That will make for a brighter Christmas celebration for each of us.

  18. Those opposed to the “Put Christmas back into Holiday Sales!” movement (whether Adam Cohen in the NYTimes a few days ago or others) seem to be missing the point. I don’t think that the Bill O’Reilly’s of the world want to encourage the commercialization of Christmas. I think what they dislike is the sense that we cannot wish somebody a “Merry Christmas” without concern about offending him.

    This appears in the NYC public school calendar, where there are breaks for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover (in those years when it doesn’t fall within a week of Easter), but there are no breaks for Christmas or Easter. Those are “Winter Recess” and “Spring Break.”

    The best solution is to just get over it. Wish all your friends, co-workers, the folks at the stores and the service station a Merry Christmas. Do it cheerfully, without guilt or fear of offense. They don’t celebrate Christmas? It doesn’t matter. There’s still a day on their calendar marked “Christmas” and we can wish them the best on that day.

    At the same time, give them your best wishes at Hanukkah and Passover.

    Some years ago, in an office in New York, with a few Mormons, some Catholics, some Japanese of uncertain religion (if any at all) and one Jew, it was the last, Mr. Weiss, who was always the first to wish everyone else “Merry Christmas.” And we’d wish him a Merry Christmas too. And, when Passover or Rosh Hashanah came, we’d all wish him the best for those holidays too. (Yom Kippur is a different story–I don’t think one can appropriately wish anybody a “Happy Yom Kippur!”)

    So, following Mr. Weiss’s example, “Merry Christmas to all!”

  19. Mark B. – I doubt that most of those who are up in arms about saying “Merry Christmas” would ever remember to wish someone a Happy Hanukkah, passover, Kwanza, or anything else. It wouldn’t occur to them.

  20. Perhaps, Sue. But I don’t know who most of them are, and I have no way of knowing whether they’d remember or not.

    On the other hand, I’d skip Kwanzaa too, since it was invented in California in 1966.

    We are putting up our Festivus pole soon, though, and would welcome all to the Airing of Grievances.

    The Feats of Strength, however, will be limited to those we think we have a realistic chance to whup up side the head.

  21. I’m not sure if it matters that Kwanzaa was invented recently. It is meaningful to an entire community of people because it gives them a sense of heritage. Does the amount of time that has passed since the institution of a holiday really matter in whether or not the people have a right to celebrate it and whether or not we wish them well? Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a fairly recent invention. Should people not participate in memorials and programs on that day?

  22. Pioneer Day is also a fairly recent invention. We started celebrating it what – in 1849? That’s a relatively short time compared to the other holidays. Does that invalidate the holiday itself?

  23. I used to think Kwanzaa was kind of lame as well, until I got to know some African-Americans who were grateful for the opportunity to indulge in and make use of the whole range of African rituals and traditions that living in a Euro-Christian society mostly didn’t make available. They were Christians themselves, by the way, as are the overwhelmingly majority of African-Americans in the U.S. The original vision of Kwanzaa was that it would replace Christmas, but I’ve yet to meet a single black Christian who actually embraced that whole program. Instead, they use Kwanzaa as a supplement to their personal Christmas celebrations (and liturgical celebrations too–many African-American Baptist and Methodist congregations have brought elements of Kwanzaa into the holiday worship services, whether in terms of candles, clothing, songs, or homilies).

    Regarding the whole “battle for Christmas” thing in general, I think I agree with Mark B. I dislike Bill O’Reilly and his ilk to a great degree; I can’t help but suspect that to them, this is just another partisan club and nothing more. And certainly it doesn’t actually hurt anyone for Target to use “holidays” instead of “Christmas”–I mean, it’s a place of commerce for heaven’s sake, not worship or personal reflection. But when you come right down to it, washing out the particular cultural or religious content of holiday rituals in the name of “inclusion” is pointless and condescending; it’ll lead to bitter backlashes in the end, and along the way teaches people that there aren’t any meaning to these things, only names which can be exchanged at will. So, I stand with Confucius; the first step in any society should be “the rectification of names.” If you put up a Christmas tree, call it a “Christmas tree.” If you’re taking a break from school for Christmas, call it a “Christmas break.” We should teach our children neither to be embarrassed by their own customs, nor to be offended when others display their own; running away from cultural specificity, as opposed to doing as Mr. Weiss did and embracing it in all its variety, is no good way to teach our children either.

  24. “When it comes to the War on Christmas, how come the media only focuses on the negative stories? Where are the positive stories? Sure, suicide reindeer have turned the North Pole into a scary hell-hole of sleigh bombings and barely functioning infrastructure, and elvish forces are still not able to defend the country on their own. But what about all the new Christian schools that are being built here in the U.S. — schools where our kids can sing “Silent Night” all day long without worrying about whether or not they’re undermining the unsaveds’ self-esteem? Where all the stories about Chasing Christmas, a great new ABC Family Channel movie starring Tom Arnold as a modern-day Scrooge? . . . [H]onestly, this constant drumbeat of stories that make it sound like we’re losing the War on Christmas? Is Rupert Murdoch Jewish or something?”

  25. I believe the appropriate greeting for Yom Kippur is “Have an easy fast.” Perhaps we should also use that greeting with each other on each Saturday before Fast Sunday.

    For what it is worth, I do not extend Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur greetings unless I know the person is Jewish. My Jewish friends who wish me a Merry Christmas do so because they know I am Christian. I appreciate their good wishes, and I hope they appreciate mine around their holidays/holy days. Unfortunately, I do not have any close Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu friends, and do not know the appropriate greetings for their holy days/holidays.

  26. Well, in researching Kwanzaa, it bugged me when I discovered it was likely originally intended to be a way of getting African-Americans to embrace communistic principles. However, the Holiday seems to have taken on a life of its own and in practice does not replace Christmas. It seems a fine holiday to me – Holidays gotta start somewhere, after all.

    Festivus – now that’s a holdiay that needs to gain wider cultural acceptance.

    Haunakkah, Festivus, Kwanzaa, Christmas, New Years – what other holidays are there out there during this time of year?

  27. But Russell – Target is not trying to change the name of Christmas. They still call Christmas trees Christmas trees. They just say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas so that they can include more than one holiday under that umbrella. They are trying to sell as much stuff to each group of people who celebrate each holiday celebrated in that time period as possible – whatever it may be. Instead of a Christmas sale, it’s a Holiday sale, which is actually more accurate. There ARE more holidays than just Christmas celebrated in December. They aren’t changing the names of the Christmas items they sell. They aren’t changing the name of the menorrahs (sp?) they sell either. They are just selling items for more than one holiday. There is a difference.

  28. “They are just selling items for more than one holiday. There is a difference.”

    I agree–that’s why I said in my comment above that I can’t imagine anyone being hurt by Target talking about a “holiday sale” as opposed to a Christmas sale. Commerce isn’t where cultural particularity gets passed on; it has different aims, and I don’t begrudge them pursuing those aims one bit. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear. It’s in the schools and other civic spaces where I see this as more important, and even then there are compromises that ought to made.

  29. Pioneer Day is recent, compared to Christmas–which wasn’t celebrated much in the US before the 19th Century. There was apparently more resistance to its celebration in the north, whereas the south was more Christmasy (despite the lack of snow and Jack Frost nipping at one’s toes or nose).

    It became an official state holiday in Alabama in 1836 (but those laws protected slavery too), but did not become a national holiday until 1870.

    So, Christmas Day may beat Pioneer Day by a nose, but Pioneer Day is way ahead of Decoration (now Memorial) Day–post Civil War, Thanksgiving Day (as a national holiday if you ignore the South)–mid Civil War, Armistice (now Veterans) Day–post WW1, Labor Day, Dominion (now Canada) Day, 1870. And so on.

    On to the Feats of Strength!

  30. Funny how the three major Christian holidays have all had their meaning written over by fictional characters and unrelated traditions. We now recognize the Easter Bunny and Santa ahead of the Savior in the spring and winter. In the fall we recognize Buzz Lightyear and the Red Ranger ahead of all saints (in both act and date as Hallows Day is 11/1). At the risk of sounding like a zealot, why have we allowed the adversary to erase the symbols of Holy days with egg laying bunnies and sugar plum fairies?

    What has occurred over the past 15 years in the US? When did it become so incorrect to openly recognize and celebrate ones Christian religion (and religious heritage), yet at the same time recognize and celebrate others for the sake of embrace and non-offense? Why can I wish someone a Happy Hanukah, yet I cannot wish someone Merry Christmas? We used to be a God fearing people, now our nation lives in fear of offending others. I realize that as our nation was built upon Christianity it was also built upon the freedom of choice and religion, but I suddenly find my choice of religion is offensive to others, even those of the same sect!

    I read yesterday that the Giving Tree at Medina Elementary, WA was replaced with the Giving Counter because a parent complained of the religious implications of the tree. A tree! Aren’t trees pagan by the way? So even the re-writes that we have made are being re-written even further to replace the memory of any reason as to why we are celebrating. Who wants to give to a Giving Counter any ways?

    As for Target, I can’t blame them. It’s a publicly traded business that employs and services people from across the spectrum. I can even understand the removal of the Bell Ringers as they cannot exclude every other organization from fund raising and allow only the Salvation Army. In return Target does offer an outstanding grant program.

    Time to quit before I get emotional.

    Merry Christmas to all!


  31. Using “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” also means they can extend the use of that sign for New Year’s. That’s usually what I think of when someone says “Happy Holidays”–oh, they mean New Year’s as well. :)

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