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Tread lightly in the season of good cheer

The simplest holiday wish can be packed with societal subtext and political correctness. Or is it really just a simple holiday wish?

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 18, 2005

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Some groups have targeted Walgreens and other retailers for advertising "holiday trees" that otherwise look like Christmas trees.

Some Christians say they are fighting against a cultural attack on Christmas, an effort to turn the sacred holiday into a generic, politically correct winter festival devoid of any trace of their faith.

Others - Christians and non-Christians alike - say that replacing "Christmas" with "holidays" in public discourse better acknowledges the country's diversity of cultures and faiths.

The debate, while not new, has blazed brighter than ever this year.

Boycotts have been threatened. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, television talk show host Bill O'Reilly and the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State have traded barbs. In Tampa, Without Walls International Church drew attention with its "To hell with Happy Holidays, let's bring Christ back into Christmas" banner.

Caught between the extremes are most Americans, now left to navigate a holiday season in which a simple greeting can be a verbal hand grenade.

"I would say Merry Christmas to people who I know are Christians," said Steve Plice of St. Petersburg, a Christian. "In my business, I send out Happy Holiday cards to my customers, because I like them to know that I remember them, but I don't want to impose any kind of religious rules on them."

The debate over Christmas is "related to a whole series of moral and religious issues, prayer in schools, intelligent design, debates over homosexuality, bringing religion into politics," said Bill Leonard, a Baptist minister who is dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University's Divinity School.

In addition, he said, there is a "huge frustration with pluralization."

Leonard said he has been amazed by the number of people making a point of saying Merry Christmas in the past few weeks. "It's become kind of a Christmas confession," he said.

The controversy gained momentum after a "new tribalism" grew out of the Sept. 11 attacks, said Ron Miller, chairman of the religion department at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Ill.

"All of a sudden, there's a fear that we're going to erode Christian identity, so there's a desire to define it in a more exclusivist way," said Miller, co-author of the book, Healing the Jewish-Christian Rift: Growing Beyond Our Wounded History. "I think, in the last election, we really saw it in the really strong opposition to gay marriage."

Churches used to complain about the commercialization of Christmas, said Darrell J. Fasching, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida.

"Now it's like people are saying it's not commercial enough," by criticizing stores that use the more generic holiday greeting, he said.

Leonard agrees, scolding Christians for having become compromised by materialism. "If they want to put Christ back in Christmas, they should skip the mall and give that money to the poor," he said.

Registered nurse and real estate consultant Lizz Woolery of Pinellas Park isn't concerned with commerce.

She just doesn't understand why anyone would be angered by hearing the word "Christmas."

"I'm just bothered," she said. "All my life we've always celebrated Christmas and my Jewish friends had no problem with it. Now, it's a big deal.

"I grew up saying Merry Christmas, and I'll still say Merry Christmas."

The Rev. Charlie Martin of First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks believes the effort to downplay Christmas "has been coming gradually."

"This is America, and people have the freedom to say whatever - Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, whatever," he said. "What I'm saying is, I want Muslim people and Jewish people and even the atheists, I want them to be able to have their freedoms. I don't want their freedoms to infringe on my freedoms."

Dave Anderson, a business speaker and author from Agoura Hills, Calif., said the pressure to avoid saying "Merry Christmas" amounts to an attack on Christianity.

"I think when you're saying "Happy Holidays,' you are insensitive to the majority of people. When my butcher wished me Happy Hanukkah the other day, I accepted his good wishes," Anderson said.

"When somebody wishes me Happy Holidays, it reeks of compromise and you offend my reason for the season. Don't try to make my religious holiday into a secular day by neutering it."

For Jim and Ruth Barrens of St. Petersburg, the December holidays are about mutual respect and understanding. He is Catholic, she is Jewish and their children are being raised in the Jewish faith.

Jim Barrens, executive director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University, dismissed as ridiculous the assertion that Christians are being victimized. Christianity is still the majority religion in America, he said, while minority religions still fight for their rights.

"We've come a long way from, say, 40 or 50 years ago . . . but we have a long way to go," he said.

Ruth Barrens said she is not offended when someone wishes her a Merry Christmas.

"I say, "Thank you very much. Same to you.' I don't make a big deal of it by saying I'm Jewish," she said.

Jennifer Hancock, executive director of the Humanists of Florida Association, said nonbelievers should not be accused of attacking Christmas.

"We have not declared war on Christmas. We really don't care. We have other things to do with our time. . . . It's a non-issue for us," she said.

The phrase "Happy Holidays," she added, "acknowledges that Christmas is not the only holiday this time of year." In fact, this year Hanukkah begins on Christmas night. Kwanzaa begins the next day.

Rather than take sides in the debate, Ron Gompertz and his wife decided to capitalize on it. From their home in Montana, they have launched a Web site selling items that celebrate "Chrismukkah" - a satirical hybrid of Christmas and Hanukkah.

The son of Holocaust survivors said the raging national debate is "a perfect storm" for his fledgling business that sells holiday cards, a cookbook and other items on the Internet at

"I guess that what we're doing," Gompertz said, "is throwing some water on the fire the controversy has erupted."

[Last modified December 18, 2005, 01:28:58]

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