During the 1970s, it was in vogue in some circles to denounce the “commercialization” of Christmas. According to this critique, Americans had allowed their capitalist society and consumerist culture to overwhelm the larger spiritual meaning of the season.
Today, we hear much less from the left about the evils of unbridled commercialism than we used to. It seems that many of the former critics are willing to accept widespread consumerism, but under only one condition: That Santa Claus or Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — rather than the Baby Jesus — serve as America’s Christmas symbol today.
At long last, people of faith have been pushing back at new practices that seem intent on extracting every scintilla of religious meaning from “the holiday.” Accordingly, the media has been humming with stories about the “Christmas wars.”
Our language has become a central front for the battle. Indeed, the word “Christmas” itself is used less frequently than it used to be. Although the festive decoration of evergreen trees is a part of no other religious festival, Christmas trees have now become known as “holiday trees;” similarly, Christmas music (consisting of songs observing no other celebration) is now known as “holiday music.” And that’s just the beginning. All of us have become so sensitized to the word “Christmas” that one can hear friends — each known to the other to be Christian — wishing each other “happy holidays.”
In a country where 96% of Americans celebrate Christmas in some form, according to a 2003 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, it’s worth exploring how “Christmas” has come to be replaced so quickly in recent years by “holiday.” Underlying the homogenization of the language, music, decorations and public observances of Christmas is the concern that those of other faiths — or of no faith at all — will find religious allusions somehow “offensive.”
The concern is understandable — because, in recent years, Americans have been informed by some of their fellows that the merest hint of religion in the public square is per se provocative and rude. Interestingly, most vocal purveyors of this point of view are those who are active and aggressive non-believers, the kind who not only lack beliefs of their own, but who object to others having any at all.
Obviously, if these non-believers insisted on an end to religion in the public square because it “annoyed” or “angered” them, regular Americans would ignore their demands, or dismiss them with the derision that they deserved. So some non-believers cleverly disguised their opposition to religion generally by cloaking it in the guise of “taking offense.”
Americans — rightly proud of our national history of religious tolerance and diversity — responded with typical good will, seeking to eliminate the practices that others found “offensive,” without really analyzing whether the “offense” was reasonable. And this response, while praiseworthy for its compassion, has also been misguided.
For it takes nothing away from an observant Jew to see Christians celebrating Christmas — any more than Christians are left bereft by the knowledge that Jews are celebrating Hanukkah, Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah. And if non-believers are so certain that God doesn’t exist, why should they be so troubled by the rest of us giving full play to what they see as our delusional faith in the Almighty?
The true heart of the Christmas is the compassion, hope and love for others that it is supposed to engender. Those elements spring directly from its religious roots. So perhaps, in the end, what all of us should be hoping for is more emphasis on the religious aspects of “the holidays,” rather than less. After all, whether one is wished a “Merry Christmas,” a “Happy Hanukkah” or a “Blessed Ramadan,” it’s worth remembering — the greeting is a benediction, not a curse.
What, pray tell, is so offensive about that?
This piece originally appeared at CaliforniaRepublic.org.