Common Courtesy and the Christmas Wars
I hope it’s not just my subjective impression that some of the intensity faded from the struggle over public expression of Christmas this year. Over the past few years it had come to be, in some circles, a major breach of etiquette to wish someone “Merry Christmas.” I noticed it even among people who knew each other to be Christians: at moments of leave-taking when the traditional Christmas wish would once have been almost automatic, there would be a moment of awkwardness and a rather stiff “Happy Holidays.” But this year there was less of that, and a few people who had been sticklers for “Happy Holidays” have allowed themselves “Merry Christmas.”
I’m not sure what’s the best word to use to describe those who have tried aggressively to remove any mention of Christmas from the Christmas season. “Liberals” is the simplest label and not entirely inaccurate, but is too broad and includes too many people who mean no harm and sincerely believe that they are being inclusive and so forth. To say “the cultural left” is clumsy and perhaps a bit esoteric; it needs further explanation. “Anti-Christians” is probably the most accurate. Although it’s a bit strong, I think it’s a fair description of those who view any public mention of Christianity (excluding hostile mention, of course) as menacing, and who have worked aggressively to suppress it.
The anti-Christians, then, have perhaps overplayed their hand. Suddenly this year the resistance seemed to become much more vocal (sometimes, inevitably, becoming as shrill and unreasonable as their opposition). Too many people, even nominal or non-Christians, are too fond of the American Christmas celebration, and have been alienated by the campaign against it. That there has been such a campaign is obvious. The editorial section of the local paper on Christmas Day included, if I remember correctly, at least four columns by left-of-center pundits scoffing at the idea and denouncing as divisive those who have complained about it. I took this as an indication that the push-back from Christians and their allies has met with some success.
There’s no good reason for the level of acrimony surrounding this matter to be so high. I think a general attempt to practice common courtesy could reduce it greatly. There have always been non-Christians who quietly avoided the word “Christmas,” either because of religious scruples or commercial prudence. I remember as a child in the 1950s puzzling over why some advertisements and greeting cards used the phrase “Season’s Greetings.” I suppose it’s possible that the people involved were secretly boiling with fury that the holiday existed at all, but I doubt it. It puzzles me that anyone would react with hostility to a benevolent wish expressed in terms of a religion that is not his. If a Hindu wishes for me the happiness and blessings of his religion, I will not be such a churl as to snap at him, but will accept his greeting in the spirit in which he extended it.
Of course I understand that in some instances—the situation of Christians and Jews, for instance—there may be serious historical grievances which complicate the matter. Still, is it not far wiser to assume good will in these little encounters that do so much to form the social fabric?
And while we’re at it: common sense comes in handy, too. Both sides of this debate are guilty of using exaggerated and irrational slippery-slope arguments; unfortunately, many of them are lawyers and Supreme Court justices. A crèche in the park today does not mean the burning of heretics tomorrow. Neither does the substitution of “holiday” for “Christmas” under certain circumstances mean that a new Diocletian has appeared. The divisions in our society are bad enough without the exacerbations of paranoia and hyper-sensitivity.