Holiday Spirit: From the Heart, Not the Mall

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, December 10, 2005

Silly me! And here I've been thinking that Target, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Kmart and America's malls are places where people go this time of year to shop. But thanks to the Rev. Jerry Falwell and others in his wing of Christendom, I now know that those stores are there during the holiday season to serve as places of worship. What other conclusion can be drawn?

Falwell, as he desires his flock to know, wants Americans to do their shopping at stores that greet you with "Merry Christmas" and that celebrate the birthday of Jesus in carols, religious decorations and marketing displays. In my old neighborhood, that used to be called "church." Not in Falwell's world. Retailers inclined to greet their customers with the inclusive "Happy Holidays" are being branded by him and his bunch as "anti-Christmas" and have been threatened with boycotts, petitions and letter-writing campaigns. The use of "Season's Greetings" is viewed by religious rabble-rousers as a sign of discrimination against Christianity and a weak-kneed concession to people who hate Christmas.

On the other hand, retailers displaying Christian symbols are considered friends rather than foes of Christmas, and thus worthy of Falwell's blessings. Shame, however, on those stores that celebrate the holiday season in a way that doesn't show favoritism to one religion over another -- turn thy face away from those retailers who embrace customers of all faiths or those of none at all. They are regarded in Falwell's world as enlistees in the war against Christmas. Falwell's fellow traveler Pat Buchanan wrote in a column titled "Christianophobia" a year ago that "it needs to be said. What we are witnessing here are hate crimes against Christianity -- the manifestations, the symptoms of a sickness of the soul . . . the fear and loathing of all things Christian, coupled with a fanatic will to expunge from the public life of the West all reminders that ours was once a Christian civilization and America once a Christian country."

News Flash, Pat: Stores sell stuff. To everyone. That's what they do. They're not churches. They are stores.

I confess to being confused. Why is it that, as a lifelong Christian, I am not the least bit offended if a store clerk or a newsroom colleague greets me with "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"? And if my employer chooses to go without Christmas displays in the workplace, why should I really care? (The Post has a huge Christmas tree in its lobby.) What's more, suppose a store's advertising is stingy with the mentions of "Christmas," or President Bush decides to send out 1.4 million Christmas cards with the word "Christmas" missing? (Bush did. We got one, too.) The Christian faith, I fervently believe, will somehow manage.

How does a retailer's decision to not make any customer feel like an outsider take Christmas away from me, or affect my decision to call the evergreen in my living room a Christmas tree or ruin my celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ with my family and friends in church and in our homes? And Jerry Falwell notwithstanding, I'd just as soon keep Christmas as far away as possible from stores and the commercialization that has taken over our religious holiday. Spending and making loads of money in a crowded store with "Silent Night" floating in the background hardly strikes me as the way to celebrate what happened in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago.

And speaking of places of worship, I don't know where Falwell, Buchanan and all the other troublemakers go for services, but Christmas has no chance of diminishing in churches that I know, in particular St. Columba's.

I can't imagine that this year there will be one less Christmas carol sung, one less Christmas decoration hung, one less Christmas tree bought, one less church pew filled, or one less prayer of gratitude offered because a retail store somewhere in America substituted "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas." One surefire way religion can get marginalized in this country is by religious forces marginalizing themselves. That is what happens to figures such as Falwell when they puff themselves up and undertake such a nonsensical campaign against a manufactured bogeyman.

Recognizing the obvious -- that we live in an increasingly diverse society with different religious viewpoints -- in no way promotes disrespect for Christianity, the holiday that Christians celebrate, or poses a threat to our freedom to express devotion to our faith. What is being denigrated as "political correctness" should be regarded as common courtesy and respect. We live in a country where the First Amendment guarantees everybody -- Christian and non-Christian alike -- the right to embrace whatever religion they choose, with the government giving preference to none. Why can't that apply to America's retail industry?

kingc@washpost.com

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