By Douglas A. Hicks
Welcome back to the “December dilemma” death match — the 2010 edition. In this corner are the self-proclaimed defenders of Christmas, ready and organized to denounce anyone who says “Happy Holidays.” In the other corner are a more motley crew of retailers, secularists and religiously diverse citizens who communicate an inclusive holiday message but still decorate in red and green.
Christmas is loaded — indeed, overloaded — with symbolic power. It is a religious holy day; a national holiday; a sentimental family day; and a commercial event. No other day in the calendar has as much cultural significance, and no day has as much potential to fuel the culture wars.
This year, reports Natalie Zmuda on MSNBC.com, “Christmas is winning.” The American Family Association and other conservative groups have pressured retailers to advertize their consumer products with “Merry Christmas” campaigns instead of the more generic “Happy Holidays.” They threatened to organize boycotts against companies that they determined to be anti-Christmas. And, it seems, many national retailers have feared such economic reprisals by would-be Christmas shoppers.
Never mind that saying “Happy Holidays” was meant as a moral stand, an effort to be inclusive of the non-Christians who prefer not to celebrate Christmas as a religious holy day. Retailers desperate to keep their Christmas customers have decided to follow majoritarian pressure to recognize Christmas.
What is Christian about coercing retailers, by threat of economic boycott, to use the word Christmas in their quest to sell their products? What view of Christmas, or of Christian faith, is operating in this campaign?
Christians have allowed their holy day to be nearly completely co-opted by a consumer culture willing to exploit any symbols or stories in order to increase profitability. Indeed, it is rational for retailers to employ whatever slogans they believe will maximize their sales. For that matter, defenders of Christmas have every legal right to pressure companies as they see fit. But what is a legal right is not necessarily the morally or theologically right thing to do.
The American founding fathers emphasized the importance of individual conscience, not coercion, in matters of faith. The Constitution of Virginia (1776) states: “That religion or the duty which we owe to our creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction; not by force or violence.” Virginia luminaries such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry knew better than to force religious ideas or holy days onto citizens.
Yet, don’t tell that to the late Jerry Falwell, who famously told his followers that, “We are winning the Christmas war.” His son Jonathan continues to stoke his congregation’s fire to fight and defeat those who would eliminate Christmas. They have condemned retailers and also threatened to bring suit against any school or other public entity seeking to ban talk of Christmas.
I hope that this year, the December dilemma won’t turn into an all-out death match. If retailers are going to decorate exclusively in red and green, they might as well call it Christmas retailing. Although businesses should create respectful settings for their employees and customers alike, we citizens should not expect retailers to lead the way in creating an inclusive, good society. Companies, after all, have a legitimate right to pursue profits as long as they are just in how they go about it.
Christians who wish to acknowledge the religious roots of the season — the birth of the Christ child –would be well-advised to uncouple the celebration of faith from excessive retail spending. Rather than complain that retailers have failed to sanctify consumerism with the name of Christmas, Christians should consider resisting the commercialization of their holy day.
Douglas A. Hicks is professor of leadership studies and religion in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond and author of With God on All Sides: Leadership in a Devout and Diverse America and Money Enough: Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy.