Nobody wants to be branded with the loathsome name of Charles Dickens’ immortal villain Ebenezer Scrooge, so most people are quick to offer a “Merry Christmas” during the holiday season.
However, a recent flurry of public protests have added a few lumps of coal to a fire that seems to flame up annually.
The bleak atmosphere of Dickens’ novel seems especially relevant amidst the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the question of whether or not to say “Merry Christmas,” particularly in the business world, is getting front page news this year.
The idea of a traditional Christmas is woven tightly into the fabric of American life, and that fabric is sewn with threads of the Christian faith.
“The first part of the word ‘Christmas’ is ‘Christ,’” said the Rev. Bert Harper, pastor of West Jackson Street Baptist Church in Tupelo.
For him and other evangelical Christians, the debate over whether the phrase “Merry Christmas” is socially acceptable is no debate at all.
“If you’re going to capitalize on Christmas, and sell a lot of merchandise and give gifts, then you should acknowledge the reason for the season,” said Harper.
His sentiments are supported by a recent poll from Rasmussen Reports, which shows that 72 percent of U.S. adults prefer saying “Merry Christmas” to other phrases like “Happy Holidays.”
Alternate forms of holiday greetings have been around for decades, long before political correctness, and evolved in part as catch phrases to cover the long “holiday season” that begins with Thanksgiving and runs through New Year’s. However, with 15 million Americans unemployed, and many conservatives fearing what they perceive as the advent of socialism in the United States and a tyranny of political correctness, the debate over how to speak of Christmas in the public square is finding renewed vigor.
For some, that debate is blurring political and social lines.
“We have an overabundance of political correctness, and it’s suppressing the real reason for the season,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Daniel, pastor of White Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Tupelo.
That political correctness can be seen in the advertisements of retailers such as Victoria’s Secret and Dick’s Sporting Goods, stores that in recent years have shied away from using the phrase “Merry Christmas” in lieu of more universal slogans such as “Happy Holidays.”
Retailers want to be sensitive to the religious diversity of their customers, but Christian conservatives see their sensitivities as a cop-out.
“There will always be people offended by someone’s convictions and beliefs, but we simply can’t take Christ out of Christmas,” said the Rev. Neil Davis, pastor of Blue Springs Baptist Church in Union County.
The Tupelo-based American Family Association is taking a more aggressive stance, calling out businesses that, in its view, don’t take full ownership of the Christian character of the season.
On the organization’s Web site, AFA.net, they’re publishing a “Naughty and Nice” list which categorizes businesses according to how prominently they feature the phrase “Merry Christmas.”
Even businesses that mention similar observances, such as Hanukkah, and the African-American-based holiday of Kwanzaa, have received criticism from AFA, mostly because they put these holidays on an equal footing with Christmas.
For many business owners recognizing other faiths is just good policy.
“As a Jew I celebrate Hanukkah, but I have no problem with wishing someone a Merry Christmas,” said Marc Perler, owner of MAP Sound and Video in Tupelo.
A big part of Perler’s business comes from equipping churches with electronic equipment for Christmas pageants, and he respects the fact that Southerners are predominantly Christians and like to have their holiday recognized. He feels there’s room to mention everyone’s beliefs.
“It’s not good to give ultimatums, and doing so seems contrary to the spirit of the season,” said Perler.
“I hope that by honoring other people’s traditions they can do the same with mine.”
Regardless of which tradition gets top billing, Dr. William Lawhead has a problem with commingling the holidays and commerce.
“We have to be careful here about using the season to baptize a commercial enterprise,” said the chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Mississippi.
“There’s a danger when we use our sacred symbols so much that we make them commonplace. We dilute them of their value.”
The first pilgrims who set up permanent residence on American shores were Christians, but they weren’t what people today would consider evangelicals.
The Puritans lived by a moral and social code that most contemporary Christians would consider radical.
Puritans despised the feasting and merriment that traditionally accompanied celebrations of Christmas, not to mention the fact that they viewed Dec. 25, a date imposed by the Roman Catholic Church to coincide with the ancient pagan festival of the Winter Solstice, as arbitrary and unholy.
It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that the celebration of Christmas became popular in the newly formed United States.
Some Christians still adhere to those ascetic standards.
“There’s no place in the Bible that gives the actual date of Jesus’ birth so we’re neutral on that,” said John Kapps, a member of the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witness in Tupelo.
“The best we can determine is that it was October or November, because there were still shepherds in the field.”
As their name implies, the Unitarian Universalists try to include all faiths in their recognition of Christmas, but, according to Tupelo president Rhonda McDowell, it never hurts to call something by its given name.
“I certainly don’t understand what’s wrong with recognizing the birthday of a wonderful person,” said McDowell.
“People need to be more accepting of each other’s beliefs.”
Many Christians try to make room for diverse perspectives, especially in trying times.
“I think this whole controversy has something to do with the economy,” said the Rev. Clementine Mays, pastor of Poplar Springs Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Shannon.
“I’m really disappointed. There’s so much going on in the world right now, people are trying to make it day to day, and even the best of Christians are being tested. For us to be arguing over something as irrelevant as a word – I think God would be disappointed.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal