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What 'War on Christmas'?

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By Ruth Marcus
Saturday, December 10, 2005

I've been hearing about this "War on Christmas," so I headed to the Heritage Foundation the other day for a briefing from one of the defending army's generals: Fox News anchor John Gibson, author of "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought." Gibson -- and Bill O'Reilly, his comrade in the Fox-hole -- see this as a two-front war: Assaulting Christmas from the government end, they say, are pusillanimous school principals, politically corrected city managers and their ilk, bullied by the ACLU types into extirpating any trace of Christmas from the public square. Battering the holiday from the private sector are infidel retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, which balk at using the C-word in their advertising in favor of such secularist slogans as "Happy Holidays."

The assault, Gibson told the Heritage crowd, has reached a "shocking level this year."

After the lecture, I wandered over to Union Station to check out a retail battlefield. Inside and out, the station was festooned with giant You Know What wreaths. A huge You Know What tree, with presents wrapped in red and green underneath, stood in the main hall, near a placard announcing "Norwegian Christmas at Union Station." A high-tech player piano was playing "Go Tell It on the Mountain," proclaiming the birth of You Know Who; the next selection was You Know Who Else Is Coming to Town. The most generic element was a small sign reading "Happy Holidays," but even then the words were bracketed by reindeer -- and let's just say, they weren't eating latkes. It was beginning to look a lot like You Know What.

If the anti-Christmas forces are winning, then the war in Iraq is nothing short of total victory.

It may seem strange -- even foolhardy -- for a nice Jewish girl to be writing about Christmas. So let me say: I'm a huge fan, always have been, in a kind of nose-pressed-against-the-glass sort of way. When I was growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, my family used to pile into the car every Christmas and drive around looking at the lights, with my mother and I engaging in earnest discussion of what color scheme we'd choose. If I were Christian, I suspect, I'd be the sort of over-the-top type who buys ornaments year-round and has a drawer full of Christmas sweaters, the kind featuring pompoms as tree ornaments.

This is the time of year, though, when those of us who aren't Christian, or who don't celebrate Christmas, most feel our minority status. I've experienced this especially acutely since my children started to look longingly at shopping mall Santas (Santa's a nice guy, honey, but he's not for us) and ask why there are so few menorahs or dreidels among the reindeer and Christmas trees. (How to break this gently? Their team has a lot more players.)

I'm not one who would argue that we ought to Grinch our way out of this discomfort by aggressively de-Christmafying. And to the extent that the war-on-Christmas crowd is simply reacting to knee-jerk political correctness, I'm with them. It's idiotic to call the Capitol conifer a Holiday Tree -- as it has been for the past several years, until it was re-, um, christened this year. If, as Gibson reports, the Plano, Tex., schools really have an edict banning red-and-green decorations (was it either color or just the combination?) -- well, you don't have to be Christian to find this more than a little silly.

But there is an ugly, bullying aspect to this dispute, in which the pro-Christmas forces are not only asking, reasonably, that their religion be treated with equal status and respect but in which they are attacking legitimate efforts at inclusivity. It's this sense of aggrieved victimhood that confuses me: What, exactly, is so threatening about calling the school holiday a winter break rather than Christmas vacation?

The latest alleged perfidy is the failure of the White House Christmas card to mention Christmas, instead expressing "best wishes for a holiday season of hope and happiness" and featuring a verse from Psalms. William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, calls this evidence that the administration has "capitulated to the worst elements in our culture." I call it a recognition, especially welcome at a time of sectarian violence, that not all the 1.4 million folks on the Christmas list are Christian.

This has reached its most imposition-of-Sharia-law-like level of intolerance in the campaign to cow stores into saying Christmas. O'Reilly, escalating his "Christmas Under Siege" campaign, has posted a list of naughty and nice retailers. The American Family Association goes further, calling for a boycott of stores -- it's targeted Target -- that fail to use the word Christmas in their advertising or in-store promotions. "Target doesn't want to offend a small minority who oppose Christmas," says AFA's chairman, Donald Wildmon. "But they don't mind offending Christians who celebrate the birth of Christ."

Really? I've just gone on the Target Web site and plugged Christmas into my product search. "We found 39,197 match(es) for 'Christmas' at Target," it reported. How offensive is that?

marcusr@washpost.com


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