Nothing helps us remember the reason for the season like a Walgreen's store clerk who remembers to say "Merry Christmas" when she hands us change from our last-minute Snuggie purchase.

The culture-war frontier has been littered with the debris of yearly Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas throw-downs as a noisy segment of American Christendom have elected themselves to serve as defenders of a perfect Christmas past. This year, First Baptist Church of Dallas is encouraging visitors to their Grinch Alert website to help make a list of naughty and nice merchants. The litmus test for niceness is simple: Nice merchants say "Merry Christmas." (Tattling on retailers who don't say the magic words on the Internet apparently counts as nice behavior as well.) Not surprisingly, this website has gotten a fair amount of news attention in recent days.

I would like to suggest that we'd be doing our non-Christian friends a huge favor if we used some of our culture war weapons on ourselves during the Christmas season. Instead of savoring the delicious jolt of affirmation some of us get from the words "Merry Christmas," what if we engage in a little self-analysis of how we celebrate the holiday within our churches?

Many congregations craft sentimental, gingerbread-scented ways of celebrating the season without giving our programming's message much thought. "It's all about Jesus," we say, while filling our church calendars with 1brunches, sanctuary decorating parties, children's cantatas, and "Secret Angel" Bible study gift exchanges.

Before you rush to enter my name on the Grinch Alert list, please hear me out. I am not saying that any of these activities are bad. What I am saying is that a lot of these events are designed to create some "Happy Holidays" fun for ourselves and our guests. Where it gets confusing is when a cookie exchange is branded with the "Real Meaning Of Christmas" religious imprint.

I grew up in a Jewish family, and my knowledge of Christmas came solely from various holiday cartoon TV specials. I dismissed the day as some red-and-green holiday celebrated by Gentiles. I came to faith in Christ in my teens, and once I was able to attend church freely as an adult, one of the first messages I got from the church was that one of the best ways to celebrate the birth of my Savior was to show up at the church's women's Christmas tea. It took me a good while to figure out that some of what passed for Christmas celebration in the church had more to do "Happy Holiday" culture than church leaders might have been willing to admit.

That isn't to say that the church didn't also present me with a heaping platter of worshipful responses to the Gift in the manger. The churches of which I've been a part over the years have focused on beautiful offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh-scented acts of outreach, justice, and mercy during this season. The giving has included filling the shelves of local food pantries, funding clean water initiatives on the other side of the globe, creating economic opportunities through microfinance loans and gifts, and lots of one-on-one "invisible" ministry initiatives to the homeless, sick, aged, grieving, or lonely in their communities. Those acts taught me what Merry Christmas meant.

You'll offer a great service to those from other faiths and cultures, as well as those who've grown up in completely secularized American culture, if you can show them you understand the difference between "Happy Holiday" and "Merry Christmas" in the way you talk about how you do Christmas at church. It can be as simple as leading into an announcement about a youth group "Bad Christmas Sweater Christmas Bash" with a word of explanation: "This is one way our church community shares the fun of the holiday season."

Believe me. A few simple words that clarify your purposes will make it a happier holiday for your unchurched visitors and friends, and will make it easier for them to find their way to the manger.

If you're in search of a more radical rethink of how your congregation approaches Christmas, bookmark the Advent Conspiracy website and make a note to revisit it next July, at about the time the first holiday commercials hit the airwaves. Though cherished traditions in churches die hard, the site offers churches and individuals accessible suggestions about how to downshift from seasonal hyper-drive into grace this season.

In any case, it is important to remember that we who follow Christ are the only ones who can communicate the message of Christmas. Even when we say "Happy Holidays" in church.