FOR THE WEEK OF DEC. 12, 2005
Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays
Check the ads in today's newspaper and count the number of ads that contain references specifically to Christmas and those that avoid those references in favor of secular substitutions. Which way do the advertisers seem to lean?
If the word "Christmas" is missing from advertisements in the newspaper, should those retailers be viewed as anti-Christian? Are non-Christian students in the class offended by the religious emphasis of the season?
List all the symbols attached to the holidays -- from manger scenes to menorahs to candy canes. Discuss which seasonal symbols might be deemed acceptable and which unacceptable in newspaper advertising?
Something as simple as calling a Christmas tree a Christmas tree has recently sparked heated political and religious debates. Phrases such as "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" have replaced "Merry Christmas" at many public venues as governments and retailers try to avoid offending non-Christians. But Christians and traditionalists argue against de-emphasizing Christ in seasonal celebrations because, they say, it diminishes the religious nature of the holiday.
The lighted, decorated tree on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington was called the "Capitol Christmas Tree" until the late 1990s when it was quietly renamed the "Holiday Tree." This year House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert issued a directive that changed the name back to the "Capitol Christmas Tree."
A Catholic group recently cited 10 retailers (Kroger, Dell, Target, OfficeMax, Walgreens, Sears, Staples, Lowe's, J.C. Penney and Best Buy) for avoiding the word "Christmas" and opting instead for generic secular terms like "Holiday sales" in advertising and store greetings. The group urged shoppers to go where "Christmas is recognized."
Politicizing the season: Years of lawsuits have made local governments wary of putting Nativity scenes on public property. That controversy stemmed from the belief that such religious symbols placed at City Halls violated the First Amendment's ban on government-endorsed religion. Later court rulings held that Nativity scenes are acceptable when they are combined with other symbols -- such as a Santa and his elves -- that indicate Christmas is a secular holiday in American culture as well as a religious one.
Inclusive vs. exclusive: The main argument for secular seasonal greetings stems from a stated desire to be more sensitive to the nation's growing number of non-Christians. Secular symbols like Santa Claus appear to some to be more neutral and less apt to offend. And retailers say they are trying to make the holidays more personal for customers -- whether they observe Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa.
Mixed signals: Until recently Wal-Mart included Kwanzaa and Hanukkah gift sections on their websites but no Christmas category. The retailer has now added that section. A suit was filed in Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., when the town allowed a menorah, but not a Nativity scene, to be placed along a public causeway. School boards in places like Maplewood, N.J., have decided to drop Christmas carols from holiday programs in their public schools. Yet Kwanzza celebrations are included as part of the curriculum in many public schools.
Sensitivity backlash: The attempts to be inclusive and respectful of other traditions have resulted in a backlash. Instead of seeing these efforts as attempts by governments and retailers to be politically correct, religious groups see them as efforts to silence religious expression. They are filing lawsuits, promoting boycotts and launching campaigns because THEY feel offended. The debate over "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" has escalated into a debate over religious freedom vs. the Constitutional separation of Church and State.
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