Don’t mention the C-word

The word 'Christmas' is conspicuous by its absence in NYC.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

Here in New York City, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. There are all the trappings: the trees, the lights, the tinsel. The radio plays Jingle Bell Rock, Santa is in his Grotto, and 10 mail-order catalogues, identical to the ones that arrived yesterday and the day before, arrive to remind us just how long it’s possible to procrastinate and still get the goods on time. And yet, this year is different…there is something off about it.

The most obvious difference is the disappearance of the word ‘Christmas’. I’m not talking about simply substituting ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’ for ‘Merry Christmas’ on cards. It’s almost as if the word never existed. Watch the TV commercials during an afternoon of American football, and ‘Christmas’ is conspicuous by its absence. Santa is there, the reindeer, the Christmas trees, but there’s nary a ‘Merry Christmas’, just ‘Ho! Ho! Ho! Happy Holidays’.

Christmas parties are ‘Festive Holiday Gatherings’ and even Christmas decorations have a strangely half-hearted feel. Witness the rising popularity of the snowman. These roly-poly men are everywhere, just bland enough to please most of the people most of the time. Stick a sprig of holly on a snowman and he’s vaguely Christmassy. In a multicoloured scarf he’s just an inoffensive ball of precipitation – supernatural, yes, but in a woolly, wintery sort of way.

Shopping for gifts, it’s virtually impossible to find the C-word in advertising or displays. Visit any of the big-box retailers – Target, Walmart, K-Mart – and you will see few references to Christmas. 106.7 Lite FM, New York’s soft rock radio station, is playing ‘non-stop holiday music’. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is now simply referred to as ‘THE TREE’. It looks a lot like a Christmas tree, it’s popularly called ‘the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree’, but no one wants to go on the record saying that.

Personally, I’m not so shy. I love Christmas. Not enough to set up one of those year-round Christmas boutiques but more than enough to start humming Silver Bells in early November. Yet even I have wavered this year. Being an atheist, I have never sent cards with a picture of the baby Jesus or wise men or stars, but this year I find myself wondering who among the people I know might be offended by something as overtly Christmassy as Santa Claus and reindeer. In the dark night of my soul, I chose snowmen.

Of course, I’m not the first person to comment on the absence of Christmas at Christmas time. Conservative Christians are very sensitive to the rise of ‘The Holidays’. In October, John Gibson, a commentator for Fox News, published a book called The War Against Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. He argues that liberals, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in particular, are at the forefront of a campaign against Christmas as part of a broader anti-Christian movement. He cites examples from across the country: a float featuring a nativity scene banned from Denver’s Christmas parade; in Washington state a mother is prevented from serving her child’s class a cake decorated with the words ‘Happy Birthday Jesus’; in Maplewood, New Jersey, a class trip to see a performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is cancelled and performances of Christmas music prohibited.

For Gibson and others it seems there is a secularist conspiracy. Look more closely, however, and something different is going on. For one thing, the bans aren’t always aimed at overtly religious symbols. They include Christmas trees, saying ‘Merry Christmas’, and decorations in red and green. More tellingly, they seem to be defensive responses to the threat of criticism rather than a premeditated effort. In most cases, school administrators and local bureaucrats have acted on the basis of a single complaint, or more commonly just in case someone might be offended.

These bans are unique and unprecedented. They far exceed any of the existing prohibitions on what can be displayed on public property without violating the American separation of church and state. Even the Supreme Court, the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution’s first amendment separation of church and state, takes a softer line on Christmas. It has no problem with ‘secular’ Christmas displays featuring elements like reindeer or candy canes and even allows the display of religious imagery because it is representative of the origins of the holiday. The bans don’t so much seek to take the Christ out of Christmas as to take the ‘Christmas’ out of the Christmas holiday entirely.

Why is American society so ambivalent about this Christmas? To put things in perspective, Christmas has been under attack for a while; it has been targeted for years by moralists and killjoys. We have been told how it is grossly commercialised, too materialistic and too unhealthy. We have been told how it puts us at risk of depression, strains our families and our pocket books. It is a testament to the enduring appeal of Christmas that no one has yet tried to ban it for health reasons.

The current assault on Christmas has its root in the politics of diversity. Over the past decade, diversity has become part of the lexicon of American culture and business. Every corporation espouses its commitment to achieving it. Diversity consulting has become a burgeoning industry, offering services in organisational development, human resources management, education, training , legal and ‘crises management’. What is offensive or inappropriate is judged, not on the basis of actual complaints, but on the basis of standards set by diversity experts.

An article by Simma Liberman, co-author of the book Putting Diversity to Work: How to Successfully Lead a Diverse Workforce, is typical: ‘Guess who’s not celebrating Christmas this year? Millions of people in the United States. That’s right. Tens of millions of Americans don’t celebrate Christmas religiously, either as followers of non-Christian religions (Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews) or as individuals with no religious affiliation.… It used to be that being inclusive meant sending out politically correct “Happy Holidays” greeting cards and changing Christmas office parties to “holiday parties”. Today, inclusiveness and diversity is about more than just changing labels and titles.’

To employers, Liberman suggests making the holiday party general with decorations that are not specific to any religion, or holding a New Year’s party instead. To individuals, she advises plugging the word ‘holiday’ into Google and reading about other traditions and adding holidays like Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Ramadan and Diwali to calendars and PDAs to increase awareness of them.

The assumption is that celebrating Christmas inevitably excludes and possibly offends vast numbers of people. This seems unlikely. In the US many people, Christians, atheists and even a fair number of Jews, celebrate Christmas and up until recently most people were fairly relaxed about it. What’s changed is that the politics of diversity is now so ubiquitous, we are simply no longer able to take any cultural event at face value.

Christmas is a mélange of traditions, pagan, Christian and secular. But over the years it has come to express a humanistic sentiment that transcends its origins. ‘Peace on Earth and Goodwill To All Men’ is not confined to members of any particular group nor does it demand conformity.

It is the universalism of Christmas that makes it untenable today. The idea that there is no such thing as an idea, impulse or aspiration common to all is so strong that even the Christian conservatives who defend Christmas do so on the basis of preserving their particular tradition. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League complains: ‘Jews get a menorah, a religious symbol that signifies a miracle, the Muslims get a star and crescent, which signifies the miracle of the prophet, and what do Christians get? A tree? Come on! Christians want the real thing too. We want a crèche, which signifies the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ.’ Their campaigns to bring back ‘Christmas’ are almost as hollow as the diversity advocates’ attempt to transform it into multicultural winter-fest.

We can keep Christmas if we collectively set aside our worries and differences, and in the darkest, coldest, most miserable days of the year, celebrate it together. Wishing everyone a ‘Merry Christmas’ would be a good start. So long as we can still find it in ourselves to do that, there’s hope for Christmas yet.

Read on:

Who killed Christmas?, by Josie Appleton

Eat, drink and be merry, by Stephen Bremner

Teaching adults about ‘scary Santa’, by Munira Mirza

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Topics Politics


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