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To end Christmas wars, separate secular from sacred

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Charles C. Haynes
December 18, 2010

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe singlehandedly breathed life into the flagging “war on Christmas” debate when he announced earlier this month that he wouldn’t ride his horse in the Tulsa Holiday Parade of Lights this year—something he has done for decades.


Offended by a change of name (that actually took place last year) from “Christmas” to “holiday,” Inhofe accused parade organizers of taking Christ out of Christmas.


Last week, other Tulsans angered by the name switch demanded that the city council deny a permit to the parade, which is a privately organized and funded event. Fortunately, the city attorney was there to remind the council that it would be unconstitutional to stop a parade because it wasn’t called “Christmas.” In a 5-3 vote, a reluctant council granted the permit.


Until Inhofe’s parade protest, things were relatively quiet this December on the “war on Christmas” front. Yes, Liberty Counsel launched its fifth annual “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign,” pledging to defend Christmas against “censorship” by businesses and other organizations that convert to “holiday.” And, yes, there have been the usual December-dilemma spats in a few school districts over how many Christmas carols should be sung in the “winter concert.”


But where’s the outrage that energized past Christmas vs. holiday debates? Even the Catholic League’s recent attempt to stir conflict over holiday decorations (if Jews get the menorah, they argue, Christians should get the crèche, not the tree), has failed to generate much heat, including on Fox News, ground zero for Christmas conflicts over the past decade.


Maybe most Americans have figured out that the so-called “defense of Christmas” has been wrongheaded from the start. After all, by attacking retail stores for saying “happy holidays,” which “Christmas” are the defenders defending? Scantily clad young women in elf costumes? Store displays featuring the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy? Parade floats with Santa and Mrs. Claus tossing candy to the crowd? As Jon Stewart quipped, the bearded guy they’re defending is the wrong bearded guy.


Truth be told, Christ was taken out of our highly commercial Christmas a long time ago. Try finding religious Christmas cards at your local card store. Good luck. What has happened over time is exactly what the Puritans feared would happen (which is why they banned Christmas): Cultural Christmas is now a mostly secular festival with trees and mistletoe from the pagan past overwhelming a Christian overlay to create an economic engine of mammoth proportions.


So why would faithful Christians insist on labeling the annual national blowout “Christmas”? Calling it “holiday” (though it’s clearly no “holy day”) doesn’t take Christ out of Christmas—it could help give Christ back to Christians.


If conservative Christian groups are serious about defending Christ, then they should applaud the name change in Tulsa and everywhere else. Instead of condemning stores with “holiday” displays as “foes of Christmas,” maybe they should send warm notes thanking businesses for saying “happy holidays.” Unless, of course, the defense-of-Christmas folks care more about preserving cultural dominance than proclaiming authentic faith.


Imagine the spiritual benefits to Christian faith if Christians took back Christmas. Instead of insisting that city officials squeeze a crèche between the menorah and Santa (with reindeer flying overhead), Christians might focus instead on erecting free-standing crèches in front of churches, on their lawns, and in public spaces where all citizens are free to express their faith under the First Amendment. Christmas for Christians would be less about Santa Claus—and more about the baby Jesus.


Of course, Americans are free to call the December celebrations “Christmas” or “holidays” or whatever label they prefer. But why fight over it? After all, doesn’t “happy holidays” sound about right for parades, store displays and kids on Santa’s lap? These days, people of all faiths and no faith take part in the ubiquitous, secular celebration “Christmas” has become in the public square. Surely Jesus is not the reason for the secular slice of the season.


Instead of resenting the name change, Christians should welcome the pop-culture conversion of the shopping-mall “Christmas” to “holiday” as an opportunity to recover what has been lost. Let’s end the Christmas wars by rendering Santa unto Caesar—and Christmas unto Christ.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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