War On Common Sense

Originally published on December 12, 2011.

Can we please end this “War on Christmas” nonsense already? It would be awesome if news organizations could get back to reporting actual news instead of fanning the flames of a phony controversy. I know it’s an easy way to fill time in a 24-hour news cycle, but seriously Fox News, you’re just writing Jon Stewart’s material for him when you promote this silliness. And, since you all live and work in multi-cultural New York City, I’m guessing you understand the need for inclusiveness — despite what you complain about on-air. Does anyone think that John Stossel, who is of Jewish descent, wouldn’t be slightly grumpy about being wished a “Merry Christmas” while strolling around the hallways at Fox? I’d love to see Bill O’Reilly try. He won’t though, because he knows better. He’s just cynically hoping that we don’t know better and will buy into this pretend "war." Besides, if news channels thrive on anything — it’s conflict.

Photo courtesy of Monica's Dad

It’s possible to get carried away with political correctness and, because of that, it’s worth-while to examine the role it plays in our society. One of the biggest surprises for me was when I spent Christmas in the UK a few years ago; it was difficult to find cards that said anything other than “Merry Christmas.” Our British cousins don’t bother with “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” very often. This surprised me because the UK is a more secular society than ours in many ways — church attendance is low and many politicians are openly atheist or gay. However, during the holiday season they are suddenly super-traditional. There are few nods to other religious traditions and there is no Thanksgiving-style, secular holiday to break up the holiday celebrations. An obviously Muslim shop-keeper even wished me a “Merry Christmas.” Ultimately, I found a few generic holiday cards to send to my Jewish friends in the States, but the experience did cause me to contemplate whether or not we’re too politically correct about the holidays. The answer: Yes. Sometimes we do get carried away, but mostly....no. Inclusiveness and respect doesn’t dampen the holiday spirit. If anything - it’s in keeping with a season that should be about generosity, togetherness and peace.

Photo courtesy of jbcurio

Every now and again the American Civil Liberties Union goes a little off the rails and picks on some small town and its nativity display (and sometimes they win the case). This undermines an otherwise helpful organization (the ACLU) and increases the fear of some Christians that their way of life is under attack. These isolated incidents aside, Christmas is not under attack. As Stewart said in a recent program, “Right now every public space in the nation looks like it got hit with a 500 pound tinsel bomb.” I live in San Francisco — a place infamous for political correctness. We have Christmas trees all over the place interspersed with the token menorah. Our churches are in the middle of the advent season and you can bet worshipers will wish each other a “Merry Christmas” within their Christian communities. Even if someone calls it a “Holiday Tree” — like the one in the Rhode Island state house — we all know what it is. A slight nod to the fact that we live in a society with Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Jews (and many others) doesn’t take away from a Christian’s ability to celebrate Christmas. Saying “Happy Holidays” to your Jewish friends is simply polite. That’s probably why the Republican National Committee has a Holiday Party — not a Christmas Party. “Merry Christmas, Representative Cantor,” might be a faux pas.

Christmas is part of a greater holiday season. There is a span of a few months during which Americans celebrate Halloween, Day of the Dead/All Saints Day, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Kwanzaa (though I have yet to meet someone who actually celebrates this), the New Year and Chinese New Year. “Happy Holidays” acknowledges the whole season. Also, consider the word “HOLI-day.” It MEANS “Holy day.” I think that’s fairly descriptive of Christmas, the second holiest day of the Christian calendar.

Photo courtesy of Ian Muttoo

One of the differences between the United States and the United Kingdom is that, despite their modern tradition of religious freedom, the British have no written constitution that bars the government from establishing an official religion. In fact, they have state-sanctioned religion in the forms of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution not only gives the ACLU the justification it needs to insist that a local governments remove a religious display, but it also protects all of us from being told how to worship. It’s the reason that public schools can’t promote religion, but they also have to allow students to worship as they please (despite what Ricky Perry claims). It’s the reason different immigrant groups have found sanctuary here for more than two centuries and it’s one of the many reasons Americans have a tradition of inclusiveness.

It’s that tradition of inclusiveness that makes Americans exceptional. If you live in a community where everyone celebrates Christmas, by all means, wish people a “Merry Christmas.” No one is saying there is anything wrong with that, but please understand that most of us have friends and colleagues from all walks of life. I’ll wish people a “Merry Christmas” at my neighborhood church or when I’m with family, but when I’m with friends of other faiths I say “Happy Holidays” because their traditions are important and deserve respect too. Certainly, we shouldn’t let lazy reporters’ need to fill time on a slow news day — or their cynical ploy for ratings — deter us from acknowledging the cultural richness that makes our country great.