What's missing from the White House Christmas card? Christmas.
This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy "holiday season."
Many people are thrilled to get a White House Christmas card, no matter what the greeting inside. But some conservative Christians are reacting as if Bush stuck coal in their stockings.
"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com. "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."
Religious conservatives are miffed because they have been pressuring stores to advertise Christmas sales rather than "holiday specials" and urging schools to let students out for Christmas vacation rather than for "winter break." They celebrated when House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) insisted that the sparkling spectacle on the Capitol lawn should be called the Capitol Christmas Tree, not a holiday spruce.
Then along comes a generic season's greeting from the White House, paid for by the Republican National Committee. The cover art is also secular, if not humanist: It shows the presidential pets -- two dogs and a cat -- frolicking on a snowy White House lawn.
"Certainly President and Mrs. Bush, because of their faith, celebrate Christmas," said Susan Whitson, Laura Bush's press secretary. "Their cards in recent years have included best wishes for a holiday season, rather than Christmas wishes, because they are sent to people of all faiths."
That is the same rationale offered by major retailers for generic holiday catalogues, and it is accepted by groups such as the National Council of Churches. "I think it's more important to put Christ back into our war planning than into our Christmas cards," said the council's general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman.
But the White House's explanation does not satisfy the groups -- which have grown in number in recent years -- that believe there is, in the words of the Heritage Foundation, a "war on Christmas" involving an "ever-stronger push toward a neutered 'holiday' season so that non-Christians won't be even the slightest bit offended."
One of the generals on the pro-Christmas side is Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss. "Sometimes it's hard to tell whether this is sinister -- it's the purging of Christ from Christmas -- or whether it's just political correctness run amok," he said. "I think in the case of the White House, it's just political correctness."
Wildmon does not give retailers the same benefit of the doubt. This year, he has called for a consumer boycott of Target stores because the chain issued a holiday advertising circular that did not mention Christmas. Last year, he aimed a similar boycott at Macy's Inc., which averted a repeat this December by proclaiming "Merry Christmas" in its advertising and in-store displays.
"It bothers me that the White House card leaves off any reference to Jesus, while we've got Ramadan celebrations in the White House," Wildmon said. "What's going on there?"
At the Catholic League, Donohue had just announced a boycott of the Lands' End catalogue when he received his White House holiday card. True, he said, the Bushes included a verse from Psalm 28, but Psalms are in the Old Testament and do not mention Jesus' birth.
"They'd better address this, because they're no better than the retailers who have lost the will to say 'Merry Christmas,' " he said.
Donohue said that Wal-Mart, facing a threatened boycott, added a Christmas page to its Web site and fired a customer relations employee who wrote a letter linking Christmas to "Siberian shamanism." He was not mollified by a letter from Lands' End saying it "adopted the 'holiday' terminology as a way to comply with one of the basic freedoms granted to all Americans: freedom of religion."
"Ninety-six percent of Americans celebrate Christmas," Donohue said. "Spare me the diversity lecture."
Diversity has been a hallmark of White House greeting cards for some time, according to Mary Evans Seeley of Tampa, Fla., author of "Season's Greetings From the White House." The last presidential Christmas card that mentioned Christmas was in 1992. It was sent by George H.W. and Barbara Bush, parents of the current president.
Seeley said the first president to send out true Christmas cards, as opposed to signed photographs or handwritten letters, was Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Merry Christmas From the President and Mrs. Roosevelt," said his first annual card, in 1933.
Like many modern touches, the generic New Year's card was introduced to the White House by John and Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1962, they had Hallmark print 2,000 cards, of which 1,800 cards said "The President and Mrs. Kennedy Wish You a Blessed Christmas" and 200 said "With Best Wishes for a Happy New Year."
Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson continued that tradition for a couple of years, but it required keeping track of Christian and non-Christian recipients. Beginning in 1966, they wished everyone a "Joyous Christmas," and no president has attempted the two-card trick since.
Seeley dates the politicization of the White House Christmas card to Richard M. Nixon, who increased the number of recipients tenfold, to 40,000, in his first year. The numbers since have snowballed, hitting 125,000 under Jimmy Carter, topping 400,000 under Bill Clinton and rising to more than a million under the current Bushes, with each president's political party paying the bill.
The wording, meanwhile, has often flip-flopped. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter put "Merry Christmas" in their 1977 card and then switched to "Holiday Season" for the next three years. Ronald and Nancy Reagan, similarly, began with a "Joyous Christmas" in 1981 and 1982 but doled out generic holiday wishes from 1983 to 1988. The elder President Bush stayed in the "Merry Christmas" spirit all four years, and the Clintons opted for inclusive greetings for all of their eight years.
The current Bush has straddled the divide, offering generic greetings along with an Old Testament verse. To some religious conservatives, that makes all the difference.
"There's a verse from Scripture in it. I don't mind that at all, as long as we don't try to pretend we're not a nation under God," said the Rev. Jerry Falwell.