Or am I just like the vast majority of atheists, who aren’t waging a war on Christmas at all? Who do, in fact, find the very notion of such a war absurd? You do know, don’t you, that when Bill O’Reilly announces the War on Christmas every year, the only notice most atheists give to the idea is to make a passing joke? You know that, right?
The War on Christmas is a joke. Sure, one side (I’ll give you a hint: not the atheists) thinks it’s a real serious thingTM, but to the rest of us, it’s a joke. And it’s not even a “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” kind of joke, where we actively participate in writing it and spreading it. It’s the kind where all we have to do is sit back and watch the one and only side actively participating in their own made-up war stumbling around jousting at shadowy caricatures and taking it all oh-so-seriously. The participants make a joke of themselves, and we laugh.
“But wait!” you may say, “Atheists really do try to take down nativity scenes, and people really do try to make stores say ‘Happy Holidays,’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas!’”
You’re right, of course. But these things have nothing to do with a War on Christmas.
Let’s talk about nativity scenes, to start. This is a straight-up church/state separation issue, and has nothing to do with trying to get rid of Christmas. Any person, business, church, private organization, whatever, has every right to put whatever religious iconography they choose on their private property. You may see an individual atheist here and there getting indignant over them, but by and large we really don’t care. In fact, I happen to like Christmas decorations and fully endorse such displays. When it becomes an issue, when lawsuits get involved, is when nativity scenes are put on public property (by which I mean “property held by the government,” not “property that happens to be in a publicly visible place,”) to the exclusion of all other religious messages. It has nothing to do with Christmas itself, and everything to do with the government endorsing a particular religious belief over all others.
Moving on, we can talk about store greeters saying “Happy Holidays,” or “Seasons Greetings,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This is, of course, related to a couple little secrets that are known to only a very select few people, so of course you can be forgiven if you don’t know about them. The first secret is this: there is more than one holiday being celebrated at this time of year (for example: Chanukah, Yule, Solstice, Kwanzaa, New Year, etc.). The second, even more deeply held secret, is that not everybody celebrates Christmas!
It may be appropriate to take a pause here while you pick yourself up off the floor, and to let those two secrets sink in.
OK now? Are you ready to move on to thinking about the implications? Here are a few of them that you may want to chew over. You see, by and large the greeters and cashiers at the store (especially the big chain ones) don’t know every – or even a large percentage – of the people who come through. They don’t know what holidays you do or do not celebrate. Saying “Merry Christmas,” to a complete stranger who might be, say, Jewish, or Muslim, or Wiccan, or even a Christian of a denomination that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, would be a complete non sequitur. As would be saying “Happy Chanukah” to a Christian. But “Happy Holidays” covers just about everyone (even people who don’t celebrate any of the seasonal holidays, since they’ll probably be getting a holiday off of work at the very least). It even includes Christians. It is not an attempt to erase Christmas, it’s an attempt to include non-Christians in the generally festive atmosphere engendered by having so many seasonal celebrations clustered together.
I am not saying that “Merry Christmas,” is offensive. I am saying it’s not necessarily an appropriate thing to say to a stranger who might not celebrate it. Especially if it’s not even Christmas Day – and remember, retailers are spreading out the holiday buying season over longer and longer periods of time. If you’re not careful, you’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” to a Jewish person in the middle of Chanukah, three weeks before Christmas, and making yourself (and, by extension, your employer) look like a complete tool. If, like most businesses, your goal is to appeal positively to the widest possible selection of customers, “Happy Holidays,” only makes sense.
When you demand, on threat of boycott, that stores acknowledge your holiday and only your holiday to the exclusion of everyone else’s (which is what demands for greeters to say “Merry Christmas” amount to), you are not defending your faith from attack. You are demanding that it be privileged above everyone else’s beliefs. That’s not a War on Christmas, it’s a War by Christmas on all other holidays. I’m quite certain there are many Christians who are fully aware of this, and press the war anyway because they believe it is only right and proper for their beliefs to dominate and overshadow all others. But many actually do seem to believe that there is an active effort to destroy or erase their holiday. I want to assure them that this just isn’t so.
Having discussed those two issues, I’d just like to say a little something about Christmas itself. Most Americans – including many non-Christians – celebrate some version of Christmas. Some of us love the heck out of it. A war on something we celebrate and enjoy would be nonsensical in the extreme. Sure, we may not celebrate for the same reasons Christians do, but here’s the thing: we’re not obligated to. Culturally, Christmas has come to signify family togetherness, and a celebration of love and generosity both within your family and within the wider community. But you’re not obligated to see it that way if you’d rather focus on its religious side. I really can’t stress enough how much it really, really doesn’t bother us if religious people want to celebrate a religious Christmas. It’s the constant demands that people who don’t share your beliefs behave as if they do, and that their own beliefs are and ought to be invisible, that prompts the kinds of pushback you receive.
In the end, secular America is not trying to take Christmas away from you. We’re not trying to tell you that you can’t have Christ in your Christmas. You can have your pageants, and your extra church services, and your nativity displays, and none of us have much to say about it other than “enjoy!” In the meantime, I will celebrate my Christmas how I choose, and I will happily wish everyone the greatest possible enjoyment of whatever version of whatever holiday they happen to be celebrating this time of year.