Every Christmas season, alongside numerous productions of A Christmas Carol, someone in the media will raise the specter of a “War on Christmas!” One pundit has made it his stock in trade to lament how every year more Christmas traditions are under fire, driving Christians underground in their observance of the season, lest the politically correct thought police kick down their doors and cart them off to re-education camps where they quickly learn to say “Happy Holidays” or else. To the best of my knowledge, however, no one in the US has ever been arrested for wishing someone “Merry Christmas” and unless one attends a mosque in Texas, it’s unlikely armed vigilantes will station themselves outside one’s place of worship to disrupt the practice of one’s faith.
The notion of there being a war on Christmas is nothing new. I recall a song from the 70s or 80s where the singer told listeners “Don’t wish me Merry Xmas,” and as a child, I frequently heard grownups railing against people who abbreviated the holiday in this manner. Use of an X in place of the word “Christ” is not a modern phenomenon, however; it was a traditional method of abbreviating the name, dating back hundreds of years, even showing up in parish registers in England in the sixteenth century. In some old documents I’ve seen, for instance, the name Christopher is sometimes rendered as “Xopher”. Since the X forms a cross, it was commonly used as a stand-in for Christ. The English letter X also represents the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek rendering of the term used for Jesus. While the use of Xmas as an abbreviation for Christmas may have evolved over time, originally it had nothing to do with “removing Christ” from the holiday, since the X or cross was synonymous with Christ.
Growing up in the Methodist church, I was constantly warned that anti-Christian forces were clamoring at the gates, anxious to take away all our observances and impose their pagan ways on us all. This line of thinking completely ignored the fact that Christmas started out as a pagan feast day commemorating the Winter solstice, that was adopted by the early church to make the transition to Christianity more palatable to pagan converts. One of the earliest wars on Christmas, in fact, was conducted by Puritans in the US who refused to observe the holiday precisely because of its pagan origins. It wasn’t until the mid-19th and early-20th centuries that the holiday we now celebrate began to gain in popularity. Works like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement C. Moore helped to revive interest in it.
Anyone who believes there is a war on Christmas in the US has obviously never ventured outside his or her house after the first of November, nor viewed any television station not owned by Rupert Murdoch. In fact, the “Christmas season” starts earlier and earlier each year, now commencing sometime around Halloween. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that next years hottest Halloween ensemble is Santa and his elves. Yet every year, pronouncements of a war on Christmas outnumber showings of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
If any holiday in the US is under attack, it’s Thanksgiving, which is increasingly overlooked in the weeks between Halloween and Black Friday. As it stands, many simply regard it as a day to watch football and eat too much. Retailers, in collusion with the media, have turned this truly American observance into little more than Black Friday’s Eve in the rush to start the Christmas season and get people spending money. Stores, which were once closed on Thanksgiving, now open late in the day to lure in early shoppers and the focus is always on who’ll be camping out at stores that night to get the best values the following morning rather than being grateful for the good fortune one has experienced throughout the year.
Wishing someone Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas need not diminish one’s enjoyment of the season, and in fact, it’s usually companies and not individuals who are expected to be accommodating in this manner. It is merely an acknowledgement of the fact that we live in a diverse society where not everyone follows the same customs. Despite the ire of many pundits on television and radio, this is actually a good thing. Diversity should be celebrated as it is the sign of a healthy and vibrant society. Plenty of people still say Merry Christmas, and I’ve yet to hear of any of them losing their jobs or disappearing in the middle of the night because of it. If one is assured in one’s faith, tolerance of other people’s beliefs should not represent a threat.
To foster the notion of a war on Christmas means there must be forces conducting this war and holding this belief accomplishes little more than to set one community of faith against another. There’s enough hostility in the world as it is without inventing reasons for more. Despite one’s religious background, or lack there of, the idea of peace on earth and good will towards all is a notion we should each strive to embrace.