I did a little (very little, very short) newsroom debate on Fox 9 with a guy named Tom who appears to represent conservative Christians regarding the question of “Does Christmas have place in schools?” I quickly add that even though that was the planned focus of the discussion, it was quickly revised to be “Oh, no, not just Christmas, but Kwanza and Hanuka and stuff too.” That particular bit of backpedaling is, of course, ingenuous and annoying, because nobody from Hanuka or Kwanza is trying to force their religious holidays into public schools, only the conservative Christians. So if we were to have an ecumenical touchy-feelie “all the religions are equal” thing in the schools, you know it would consist mainly of Christmas, a nod to Hanuka, and a few snarky remarks about Kwanza. And it would probably not address in a valid way the 30 million Americans who are basically religon-free. You know this because that is how it always turns out.
Anyway, I have the following thoughts on the issue which run far beyond what Tom and I had time to talk about, and here they are.
1) It’s probably illegal to “put” Christmas in public schools. It is a religious holiday, and we have this thing called the United States Constitution. Listen. You can have my guns, but only if you pry them from my cold dead hands.1 Similarly, you can have my First Amendment Establishment Clause too, but only when you pry it from the Cold Dead Hands of the United States Courts and a number of organizations dedicated to protecting the Constitution. The whole idea of “putting” Christmas in the schools is simply undo-able, and efforts to force the situation are only going to cost the victims (the school systems targeted) in legal fees, and they don’t have the spare change for that.
2) Yes, yes, I get it: Christmas is a part of culture, lots of people who are not religious celebrate it, even the famous atheist Richard Dawkins goes carolling, bla bla bla. Yeah, I know that. I was in on that way back when. In my family, growing up (a Catholic family) we had people over for Christmas who were not Christians, In fact, they were Jewish, and often Gay. We had Gay Jews opening presents left for them under the Christmas tree, and using our bathroom, and everything. The people at my Catholic Church and Catholic school were rather antisemitic, as were others in my orbit, and totally anti-gay, but my household certainly was not, and in this sense, Christmas was a cultural tradition more than a religious holidays.
So, does this mean that when the American Family Values Association or the Catholic League force some hapless school district to “celebrate” a cultural version of Christmas that there will be no religious connotations? You might think that. And, if you do think that, send me your email. I want to talk to you about some swampland in Florida and a bridge I’m selling.
In truth, it is already possible to have Christmassy stuff in schools, but it is tricky. There was a court fight about this nearly ten years ago out east, when a school put up a Christmas tree and some elves and a Creche. In the end, they had to get rid of the Creche because it was a clear religious icon, but they could keep the elf.
I call this the Creche-Elf line. The paganistic or non-Christian aspects of Christmas vs. the very serious religious iconography. The thing is, it is hard to know where the Creche-Elf line really is, and it can be crossed in subtle ways that may not be predicted. Do conservative Christians really want to force school administrators to walk the Creche-Elf line and risk law suits? Well, yes, they do, because they want this to be a fight. So when the Christians come to your door shopping their allegedly cultural version of Christmas, ask them to leave, check your wallet, and lock the door behind them.
3) They don’t have time. Putting aside the question of legality and ethics, the last thing our troubled, underfunded, overworked, highly stressed school system needs is powerful special interest groups showing up and telling them about more stuff to teach. They already have too much stuff to teach. Leave them alone.
4) Enough is enough. Right now, the Christmas season is starting. It’s exciting. It’s fun. We’re working on our Christmas lists and checking them twice. Relatives are coming into town to visit. We’re going to get presents!!! Yay!!!
But try this on for size: Go around on, say December 23rd and ask people if they’ve had enough. Ask them if there was enough Christmas stuff out there for them this year. Ask them if the music coming out of trees on the streets and the bells ringing at the grocery stores and the TV shows and specials and movies and all the decorations and other Christmas-focused stuff in the stores was insufficient. Ask them if they need more. Ask them if they would like more Christmas smeared all over the walls, ceiling and floors of places it currently does not have a large presence. Go ahead. Ask them. They’ll probably slap you. Enough is enough.
5) The War on Christmas is not real. My buddy Tom, who in the green room claimed to have never heard of the “War on Christmas” (ahem) noted that by keeping Christmas out of schools and making people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” we were creating a hostile message for children, who would then get the wrong message. Or whatever. (Tom did land one very good punch in our discussion when he said that “The Grinch is now the Overly PC School Administrator.” I love that. That “overly PC school administrators” is saving the school from law suits and following the law,and being a good American. If that’s the Grinch, we need more Grinches. But I digress.)
Anyway, the Conservative Christians, led (by the nose, it would seem) by Bill O’Reilly, have declared that there is a war on Christmas because people say “Happy Holidays.”
And they’ve bee busy. Here’s a short list cribbed from Teh Wiki that summarizes how this particular issue has played out in ways that you can verify at the mall next time you go shopping:
- [in 2005], After threats of boycotting, the Sears Holdings Corporation … altered their marketing policies from using the term “holiday” to using the term “Christmas.” The change of policy included the distribution of “Merry Christmas” signs to stores nationwide, and the changing of all instances of the term “holiday” to “Christmas” on their website and in stores.
- Kmart [owned by Sears and thus under the same pressure] opened the 2006 Christmas season with their slogan “Where Christmas comes together”, and several commercials acknowledging Christmas, including one with the tune to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.
- In 2005, Wal-Mart was criticized by the Catholic League for avoiding the word “Christmas” in any of their marketing efforts. … This caused some backlash among the public, prompting some groups to pass around petitions and threaten boycotts against the company, as well as several other prominent retailers … in response to the public outcry, Wal-Mart announced that they were amending their policy and would be using “Christmas” rather than “holiday”. Among the changes, they noted that the former “Holiday Shop” would become the “Christmas Shop”, and that there would be a “countin’ down the days to Christmas” feature.
- In 2005, Target Corporation was criticized by the American Family Association for their decision not to use the term “Christmas” in any of their in-store, online, or print advertising. The AFA initiated a nation-wide boycott of the Target Corporation, resulting in over 700,000 petition signatures, all of which were individually sent to Target customer service. Within a week of initiating the boycott, the AFA received an official letter from Target which indicated that they would begin incorporating the term “Christmas” in their advertising: “Over the course of the next few weeks, our advertising, marketing and merchandising will become more specific to the holiday that is approaching – referring directly to holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. For example, you will see reference to Christmas in select television commercials, circulars and in-store signage.” In a 2007 interview with Chief Executive Magazine, the CEO of Target, Bob Ulrich, stated that Target’s usage of “holiday” instead of “Christmas” was a mistake. “Frankly, we screwed up”, he said.
- When it was revealed in November 2006 that Wal-Mart would be using the term “Christmas” in their advertising campaign, an article about the issue initiated by USA Today pointed out that Best Buy Corporation would be among the retailers that would not be using “Christmas” at all in their advertising that year. Dawn Bryant, a Best Buy spokeswoman, stated: “We are going to continue to use the term holiday because there are several holidays throughout that time period, and we certainly need to be respectful of all of them.” The American Family Association launched a campaign against Best Buy’s policy. In reaction to the same policy, the Catholic League placed Best Buy on its 2006 Christmas Watch List.
- Around the same time that Best Buy Corporation was noted for having avoided using “Christmas” in their 2006 advertising, Gap, Inc. (which owns Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic) was also criticized for avoiding use of the term. An unnamed Old Navy manager was quoted as saying: “We have a lot of Christmas gifts in our stores, but the word Christmas is not used here. Everything is holiday.” After mounting criticism about the issue, Gap, Inc. set up an option within their corporate telephone answering line that was specific to “holiday advertising questions”.
- In late October 2008, US hardware retailer The Home Depot was criticized by the American Family Association for using terms such as “holiday” and “Hanukkah” on their website, but avoiding the term “Christmas”. The retailer responded by saying they will be adjusting their website to make references to Christmas more prominent. It was later claimed by Snopes.com that the AFA’s characterization of Home Depot’s advertising was false, as the retailer’s advertising had initially included several references to the word “Christmas”.
- On November 11, 2009, the American Family Association called for a “limited two-month boycott” of Gap, Inc over what they claimed was the “company’s censorship of the word Christmas.” In an advertising campaign launched by Gap on November 12, the term “Christmas” was both spoken and printed on their website at least once, and was part of a television ad campaign sung as: “Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go Kwanzaa, Go solstice… go Christmas, go Hanukkah, go whatever holiday you Wannakuh”. On November 17, AFA responded to this campaign by condemning the ads for references to the “pagan holiday” of solstice, and declined to call off the boycott.2 On November 24, Gap responded to AFA’s initial boycott, stating that they will launch a new television commercial on Thanksgiving weekend that will have a “very strong Christmas theme”, featuring its Supermodelquins using the greeting “Merry Christmas”. The AFA then ended their boycott of Gap.
This … the holiday greeting problem … is actually their main point, the raison d’être for pushing Christmas into schools (to regain the respect it has lost because of The War and all). I mean, really, the AFA appears to be a bunch of thought police with rather thuggie tactics. Makes me want to avoid shopping at the stores that caved so easily.
I may be utterly unique in this world, but I learned to say “Happy Holidays” not to disrespect Christians, but to avoid disrespecting Jews, Atheists, etc. When I see my Sister in Law, for instance, I’ll say “Merry Christmas.” When I see my Mother in Law, for instance, I’ll say “Happy Hanuka.” When I see my wife, I’ll say “Hey, wait a minute, were you picking up Huxley at daycare or was I supposed to do that!!!??!!” (Oh, sorry, digressing again.) And, when I see a mixed group of people, I’ll say “Happy Holidays.”
Hot off the presses:
1If I had guns. See this.
2Thus demonstrating that the “Oh, we’ll do Hanuka and Kwanza and all the other holidays and stuff too” argument is a lie.