Sheriff Joe Arpaio will be forcing religious music on the inmates in Tent City Jail and other Maricopa County jails
Americans demanding end to generic holiday Sensitivity has taken the fun from Christmas, many say
Jaimee Rose The Arizona Republic Dec. 10, 2005 12:00 AM
If this were allowed to continue, we'd soon be stringing "holiday" lights on the "holiday" tree, wishing each other "Merry Winter" and going "celebration" shopping at the department store's Seasons' Greetings sale.
But now, after years of all this "holiday" grinching, Americans are revolting and demanding Christmas back.
This week, fury erupted after the White House Christmas card omitted the word Christmas yet again, including wishes instead for a happy "holiday season."
Retailers facing boycotts over a lack of Christmas signage have caved, with Lowe's agreeing to take down "holiday tree" signs and Target on Friday agreeing to use "Christmas" in its advertisements.
The glittering spruce on the Capitol lawn in Washington reclaimed its Christmas tree title this year after a decade as a generic "holiday" monument.
Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio joined the fray, announcing Thursday that he'll be playing religious holiday music all day, every day in Tent City Jail and other Maricopa County Sheriff's Office jails. He'll include songs by the Chipmunks for the atheists, he says.
The so-called "war on Christmas"(and there's even a thusly titled new book) has been stewing for years. But now, with both activists and average Joes digging in their Christmas stocking heels, with the beginning of Hanukkah sharing Dec. 25 with Christmas, this seems to be the year we're going to have it out.
And when 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, according to a Fox News poll, many people are left wondering why there just can't be peace on Earth.
"This should be a great time of year. Everybody should be happy," says Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman, an anomalous politician who rebuffs politically correct holiday pleasantries in favor of "Mayor-ry Christmas" cards. "If you take these things too seriously, you lose a lot of the fun."
But in a rapidly diversifying America, we are rushing to be politically correct and sensitive, and often appropriately so. We've sidestepped our habits of "letting these mainstream cultures steamroll over everything else," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. "Christmas was not immune to that."
Over the past 30 years, he says, America's December holidays indeed have evolved: Menorahs are displayed in public places and Kwanzaa was created in 1966 and added to the calendar.
In 2001, we had the first holiday postage stamp honoring Eid, an Islamic festival marking the end of Ramadan.
And somewhere along the line, Christmas almost became an insensitive word.
Disputes about Christmas are practically older than Christmas itself, Thompson notes. The winter celebration we consider Christmas was originally a pagan custom predating Christ. Gifts were given, candles lit and evergreens hung to honor the winter solstice.
The holiday morphed into Christmas around A.D. 300, when Roman Emperor Constantine assigned the holiday a Christian meaning and latched it onto a very popular existing celebration.
Additionally, religious scholars agree that Jesus Christ was likely born in the spring, not on Dec. 25.
However, it is "the American tradition" to honor this day as the birthday of Christ, says Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss. "And whether it actually is or not is irrelevant. It's the fact that there is a day set aside to commemorate that event."
The Christmas quest
And so Wildmon will continue on his organization's quest to put "Christmas" back into the holiday season. The group is behind the consumer boycotts of retailers like Target and Sears that downplay Christmas in advertisements and in-store displays.
This year, 700,000 people joined the Target boycott, Wildmon says, and the retailer acquiesced. After hearing from the association, Sears and Lowe's stores put Christmas back on signs. Next year, Wildmon is expecting more Christmas cheer from Wal-Mart.
"Let's don't change everything to be generic," Wildmon says. "Kids don't run downstairs at 5 a.m. on New Year's Day. People buy Christmas gifts. They go Christmas shopping. This is the Christmas season, and we don't need to purge it from our stores and our schools and the culture of the public."
He also criticizes things like the "winter program" at an elementary school in Dodgeville, Wis. The event featured the familiar lilting notes of Silent Night, with a new name and new lyrics. Cold in the Night goes like this: "Cold in the night, no one in sight, winter winds whirl and bite."
Should anyone have wished to complain about this attack on Christmas, there's a Scottsdale-based national network of more than 800 attorneys "poised to fight the battle for Christmas," says Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, which trains lawyers nationally on Christmas-related litigation.
"It's ridiculous that we have to be even debating in our society if it's OK to say 'Merry Christmas,'" Tedesco says. "Congress says Christmas is a federal holiday. The Supreme Court has never said you can't say 'Merry Christmas.' Schools can call 'winter break' 'Christmas break.' They can include sacred music in holiday programs."
This year, the Alliance Defense Fund mitigated a case involving a public library in Memphis, Tenn., that was allowing a Nativity to be displayed provided the religious icons of Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus were omitted. The holy family has since been allowed back under the roof.
There is still, however, that argument for sensitivity.
"It's not about discriminating against Christians by not saying 'Merry Christmas,' " says Dawn Wyland, interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. "It's about being inclusive by saying 'happy holidays.' "
You've got mail
That's the mailbox wisdom of politicians from President Bush to Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, whose annual greeting wishes the "happiest of holiday seasons" to a mailing list 8,000 strong. (Hallmark, by the way, reports that "Merry Christmas" wishes still represent the majority of the 2,200 cards the company offers each year.)
"When elected officials send out cards," says Scott Phelps, a spokesman for Gordon, "it's always been a 'holiday' card because you're elected by folks of all faiths."
Such thought is appreciated by people like Phoenix resident Arthur Lazar, who gets so incensed when wished a "Merry Christmas" that he wishes a "Happy Hanukkah" right back.
"They laugh or storm off," says Lazar, 51. "I'm Jewish, and the point is I want people to realize that not everybody celebrates Christmas."
But when Michelle Hawkins tries offering "happy holidays" to her clients at Creative Quest in Glendale, "some of them have been saying, 'No, you mean 'Merry Christmas," says Hawkins, 57, of Goodyear.
Things have gotten worse this year, she says. The paper-arts store hosted a holiday cardmaking event and faced a revolt when each of the 10 samples said "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."
"Our customers are upset about this Christmas thing," she says. "They say you should be able to say 'Merry Christmas,' and I agree, but you can't always know."
And thus it is that Phoenix chef Mark Tarbell sends out his annual holiday card to clients with neutral goodwill. Past favorites include "Season's Eatings," and "Scatter Joy."
This year, "we don't have a saying yet because we're doing an e-mail card," Tarbell says. "We're going to save trees, man."
Honestly, Tarbell adds, "I am not opposed to saying 'Christmas.' It is what it is."
He then placed a reporter on hold for 90 seconds while he consulted with his "legal counsel" over whether or not that was OK to say out loud.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-8923.