It’s been a few years since the controversy over the relative offensiveness of various Christmas greetings reached the height of its fury. However, one can still find a few sanctimonious op-ed pieces on the topic.
The narrative, in the mainstream press and blogosphere, goes something like this:
Sometime around the middle of the last decade, dictatorial, crazed American Christians told corporations that they must not address holiday shoppers with the words, “Happy Holidays”. American Christians will settle for no Christmas greeting that does not include an explicit reference to Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Three Wise Men. (The sprinkling of holy water is also enforced in shopping malls in heavily Roman Catholic areas.)
The truth of the matter is just the opposite. American Christians never objected to Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, or Happy Yuletide. It was, in fact, slavishly multicultural, politically correct corporate nitwits who raised the issue in the first place. (They were soon joined by the slavishly multicultural, politically correct nitwit bloggers.)
The fundamentalist zealots here are not the Christians, but the multicultural secularists.
Anyone who can remember at least a full decade of the twentieth century will know this to be true. The distinction between Merry Christmas and the more secular forms of holiday greetings was not always as political as it has come to be in recent years. Throughout most of my living memory, in fact, believers and nonbelievers alike moved seamlessly between the two forms.
I remember walking into stores with my parents, about the time that Jimmy Carter was president. Some stores greeted you with a, “Merry Christmas”, others with a “Happy Holidays”. (You heard “Happy Hanukkah!” a lot, too.)
But you seldom noticed either way—because we had not yet been told that explicit references to Christmas are really nothing but veiled expressions of hostility toward all of the Muslims, agnostics, Wiccans, and Buddhists who happen to pass within earshot. Not to mention those practitioners of Yoruban shamanism who happen to be browsing at Radio Shack that day.
The whole thing is more than a little silly—for numerical reasons if not for traditional ones. To begin with, 75% of Americans identify themselves as some variety of Christian. Among the remainder, about 20% are “no affiliation”. (That includes people who are atheists, agnostics, and “spiritual but not religious”.) Only 5% of Americans are solidly attached to a religion other than Christianity.
The folks who get worked up about “Merry Christmas” in Western societies seldom get upset about the fact Japan has so many Shinto shrines in public parks, or that so many Muslim countries have the star and crescent on their national flags. To the PC crowd, ceremonial displays of majority religious beliefs are only offensive when they involve (presumably white) majorities in Western societies. When non-white, non-Christian societies display their faith, it's “multiculturalism”.
And anyway, Christmas is multicultural, if you want to get technical about it. Christmas has long been a holiday that means many things to many people in many lands.
Christians, of course, regard the holiday as a spiritual milestone, the birth of Christ. But Christmas is also celebrated in Japan, a country with a negligible Christian population. In Japan, Christmas Eve is a night not for prayer, but for romantic interludes—hardly something that your local Baptist or Methodist preacher would approve of.
Even Ayn Rand, a renowned atheist of the twentieth century, gave Christmas her backhanded seal of approval. In 1976 Rand wrote:
“The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized . The gift-buying . . . stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only ‘commercial greed’ could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.”
-Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Calendar, December 1976
Ayn Rand is hoisting something of a straw man when she describes “[Christian] mystics” decrying the commercial aspects of Christmas. On the contrary, Christians never needed atheists to encourage them to have fun on the holiday. Throughout most of the history of Western Christendom, the Christmas holiday was a drunken, boisterous affair. These fun-hating mystics are mostly a product of Ayn Rand’s imagination. Christian efforts to make Christmas a purely dour, somberly religious holiday have always been limited to a few small-time initiatives that mostly failed.
During the mid-1600s, England was briefly under the control of Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan and one of history’s most infamous killjoys. Cromwell effectively banned Christmas celebrations; but within a few months of Cromwell’s death, the people of England banned Cromwell’s regime. After the Stuart Restoration of 1660, Cromwell’s body was dug up, put on trial, and hanged. The restored Stuart monarchy also restored Christmas, while they were at. The [Christmas] holiday festivities resumed.
In the tradition of the Stuart monarchy, I’m all for the tradition of saying Merry Christmas—whether the meaning of Christmas is primarily religious for you, or secular, or both. But in the same way, I had never found myself objecting to Happy Holidays, either. It’s all good, as they say—or all very merry.
Or at least it was, until the PC thought police got involved.
The words “Happy Holidays” didn't become odious in any sense until they had been embraced by the cult of militant multiculturalism. And then they became truly odious.
In 2004, Macy’s—along with some other prominent businesses—banned all corporate references to Christmas, more or less as the Puritan Cromwell had done in the 17th century.
This was done in the name not so much of atheism, per se—but of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is but one of the religions of the New Left, and its fundamentalists are as dogmatic and inflexible as the Protestant Christian Puritans of the 1600s. (They are also just as adamantly opposed to anything that is remotely fun.)
Never mind the fact that Christmas has long since been appropriated, secularized, and modified by non-Christian peoples throughout the globe (such as the Japanese have done). The cult of multiculturalism is not so much about respecting other cultures, as it is about finding petty pretexts for offense in the traditions of Western culture.
In other words, if the Buddhists of Japan and the Yoruban shamanists were not sufficiently outraged by the acknowledgement of Christmas, Macy’s management would be outraged for them.
Macy’s finally relented after a backlash and a threatened boycott; but the “Macy’s effect” reverberated throughout American business policies and corporate life.
Company Christmas parties used to be just that. Sometimes they were called “holiday parties”; sometimes they were called “Christmas parties”. No one really noticed or cared.
But ten years after the Macy’s brouhaha, the company “Christmas party” has become yet another article of forbidden speech. Most corporations would sooner hire strippers for their holiday party than call the annual gathering a Christmas party, like they did only a few years ago.
There is nothing especially wrong with a year-end “holiday party”—except when it becomes verboten to call it a “Christmas party”—just like there is nothing wrong with saying “Happy Holidays”, so long as it’s okay to say “Merry Christmas”.
But when you tell me I can’t say “Christmas party” or “Merry Christmas”, then you’ve waved a red flag. Then I’m going to call that party a “Christmas party”—just to spite the lemmings.
Oh, and have yourself a Merry Christmas, while you’re at it.