Merry Christmas

Posted: Dec 22, 2005 12:05 AM

An old saying tells us to avoid bringing up the subjects of politics or religion. So here's a novel idea -- let's bring up both topics at once!

 The media this holiday season have published and broadcast many news stories and commentaries on the so-called "war on Christmas." The religious-centered holiday has become a social issue, and even a political one.

 Allegations have surfaced that some national retail stores have banned their employees from saying "Merry Christmas" on the job.

 That controversy has expanded to a broader front in stores, schools, businesses and many other places where people gather.

 The governor's office in one state issued a statement that the governor was going to light the state's "Holiday Tree" that evening. A half-hour later, the press received a corrected release -- "make that the lighting of the Christmas Tree," it said. Oops.

 Media have carefully documented every development and permutation of this drama. An afternoon pundit and commentator for FoxNews has written a book that mostly condemns the many attempts to take the "Christ" out of Christmas, so to speak.

 So we'll call it a coincidence that FoxNews has been stirring up debate on the issue almost every day. Their approach is usually to lambaste those who would deny their community a "Merry Christmas," or their store patrons a "Christmas sale."

 Other media took a different approach. CBS Radio News recently reported "objectively" on the skirmish, then pointedly ended the segment by wishing everyone "Happy Holidays."

 Issues of American pop culture often become prominent and then anonymous again in what seem like successive breaths.

 The assault on Christmas may meet a similar fate, thanks to an entity known as the American people. A new national poll released by Gallup reveals that 69 percent of respondents said their favorite greeting during this season is "Merry Christmas."

 That's almost 10 percent more than said the same thing last year.

 Maybe those who insist on making an issue about greetings of goodwill have had the reverse influence that they hoped. Perhaps they have created a new determination among many Americans to keep alive the "traditional traditions" of the Christmas season.

 Growing up, I was fortunate to attend a secondary school with many Jewish students. They were a minority, but compared to most Deep South schools, they were in abundance.

 Exposing me to this situation wasn't intentional by my parents, although they certainly had no problem with it. I count it as a great gift to my development.

 And yes, we had both Christmas and Hanukah celebrations and events at the school. We said "Merry Christmas" to our Christian classmates and "Happy Hanukah" to Jewish ones.

 Often we said "Merry Christmas" to each and all. We thought nothing of this; after all, the school calendar, including our longed-for break from classes, was scheduled around the days leading up to and following Dec. 25 -- Christmas.

 Nobody cared. We were a small and close-knit school -- more like an extended family than a collection of bare acquaintances. We rarely gave one another's religion a second thought.

 My Jewish friends sometimes attended celebrations and rites-of-passage events in my life, some of which had Christian trappings. And I attended many a Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah.

 No one ever got touchy because Christmas decorations adorned the school. Besides, we were just as likely to see symbols of Hanukah.

 And that brings me back to the argument about whether there is a war on Christmas.

 I don't believe there is, at least in an isolated sense. More accurately -- and more significantly -- I see the outlines of a mostly well-intentioned but misguided effort to mold our speech, thoughts and actions into something that's divorced from reality.

 The fact is that America traditionally has been a Christian-dominated nation, but one with a constitution that forbids the establishment of a national religion.

 The two are not contradictory.

 Trying endlessly to tiptoe through the minefield of political correctness is to deny the cultural reality that the current holiday season is centered on the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. (The holiday may have drifted off its religious moorings into a sea of crass commercialism, but never mind.)

 Obviously, and according to the survey just cited, the large majority of Americans agree. And they want to stick with the verbal greeting that reflects cultural reality.

 Just because people of good faith, including me, like to say "Merry Christmas" doesn't mean we don't also like to wish joy and happiness to friends, acquaintances and strangers of other faiths, or no faith. Most of us do exactly that when it seems appropriate.

 And so to you all I wish a truly Merry Christmas. And to my Jewish friends, a Happy Hanukah. To quote from one of their holiday songs, may they "light one candle" in the knowledge that they are loved by a longtime Christian friend.