Glad tidings: Christmas is saved. Sure, this season has seen its grinches. But after last year's "holiday" attack, we've mostly run them back to Mt. Crumpit. Wal-Mart has prominently replaced last year's "Happy Holidays" greetings with "Merry Christmas," and promises 60 percent more Christmas-labeled merchandise.
"We, quite frankly, have learned a lesson from last year," a spokeswoman told USA Today. Target, Macy's, Carson Pirie Scott, and other stories are also getting out of the holiday spirit in favor of Christmas.
One of this year's early battles was short-lived. The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation initially rejected a gift of 4,000 biblically themed dolls, then changed its mind after a brief uproar. "We realized it's a lot less time-consuming to find homes for the dolls than it is to answer media and complaints," foundation veep Bill Grein told The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, last year's "holiday tree" at the Michigan Capitol is once again a "Christmas tree," a once-banned nativity float has returned to Denver's Parade of Lights, and a momentary manger omission in St. Albans, West Virginia, has been rescinded.
Even the U.K. is seeing a backlash against a generic holiday. The Royal Mail's seasonal stamps may omit religious imagery, and some town councils may have renamed their celebrations "Winterval," but now even Muslims are calling for more Christ in Christmas. The Christian Muslim Forum, headed by leading clerics from both religions, argued: "Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and we wish this significant part of the Christian heritage of this country to remain an acknowledged part of national life. The desire to secularize religious festivals is offensive to both of our communities."
But is hearing "Merry Christmas" from sales clerks really what we wanted for Christmas? And did anyone check out the price tag?
Here's more from that Christian Muslim Forum statement: "Those who use the fact of religious pluralism as an excuse to de-Christianize British society unthinkingly become recruiting agents for the extreme Right. They provoke antagonism towards Muslims and others by foisting on them an anti-Christian agenda they do not hold."
In other words, Christian conservatives, not the multiculturalists, are becoming the Scrooges in the story. Or maybe we're the old, grumpier Santa, but instead of bringing coal, we bring subpoenas. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) announced that it has 950 lawyers (a 19 percent increase from last year) standing by "to combat any improper attempts to censor the celebration of Christmas in schools and on public property." It's hard to feel jolly when the person saying "Merry Christmas" adds, "Want to make something of it, punk?"
ADF insists that it's not being countercultural, quoting statistics that show only 15 million Americans (out of 300 million) don't celebrate Christmas. A separate poll found that only 28 percent of Americans think the move to "Happy Holidays" from "Merry Christmas" has been a change for the better. Meanwhile, we hear very little of the old complaints about the "commercialization of Christmas." In polls, it's still more of a concern than "opposition to religious symbols in public places (64 percent vs. 46 percent among evangelicals). But one wonders if all the shows of economic force, through boycotts and such, has dulled the moral force of that critique.
Those who engage in combat to remind others of "the reason for the season" would do well to remember that the Christmas season as such has only existed for about a century and a half. The 1,500-year-old Christian season that precedes December 25 is Advent, a time of fasting, penitence, and somber waiting. Protestants who eschew Advent because of an association with Rome have precedent for doing so. But the Reformers, Puritans, colonial Baptists, and others who gave rise to modern evangelicalism either passed Christmas Day with a simple worship service, or strongly opposed such a "popish" observance.
But please, the next time you're in Wal-Mart and the clerk wishes you "Merry Christmas," don't get an angry look in your eye, poke your finger into the clerk's chest, and say, "It's Advent! Christmas isn't until December 25!" That would be really annoying.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A version of this column originally ran in the December 2006 print edition of Christianity Today. The column "Tidings" was formerly called "Weblog in Print." Earlier columns by Ted Olsen include:
What Really Unites Pentecostals? | It's not speaking in tongues. It may be the prosperity gospel (Dec. 5, 2006)
Does Islam Need a Luther or a Pope? | American pundits debate whether centralized religious authority restrains violence. (Oct. 20, 2006)
Asylum vs. Assistance | Offering sanctuary isn't about political protest. (Sept. 26, 2006)
We're Not Spectators | Mideast Christians writing for our website expressed their anguishand anger. (Aug. 28, 2006)
Latter-day Complaints | Mormons and evangelicals fret over movies, politics, and each other. (Jul. 6, 2006)
Peace, Peace | From the front page to the obits, one day's news about Christian peacemaking. (Apr. 18, 2006)
The Art of Abortion Politics | A unanimous Supreme Court decision opens the door to real change. (Feb. 20, 2006)
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