Rebranding Christmas

By Tom Krattenmaker

 Award-winning Portland-based writer
Recent book: The Evangelicals you Don’t Know
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Ah, the perils and pitfalls of the Christmas … er … holiday season.

Like the stockings hung over the fireplace on Christmas morning, my newsfeeds and inbox have been full of holiday-related controversies and things to fret about in this most festive time of year.

One sign of the times was this news tidbit from Montgomery County, Md. In response to a request from Muslim community leaders, the education board voted this fall to change “Christmas break” to “winter break” — making Montgomery one of many educational systems and institutions to go with the generic seasonal moniker rather than the C word.

For the record, this is not quite the outcome the area’s Muslim leaders had in mind. They had asked for official school days off in recognition of one of their major holidays. But rather than accede to that, the school board decided to secularize all holiday breaks, Christian and Jewish alike, as if to wash its hands of the whole darn mess (while creating a new one in the process, judging from the criticism that has followed).

Workplace rebranding

Even some of the most secularized and consumerist expressions of Christmas are being judged inappropriate in some quarters. Some workplaces and social circles are calling their gift exchanges “secret snowman” rather than “secret Santa,” as if the gift-bearing fat man bore too close an association with Christianity to make his presence palatable.

Congress is another “workplace” where holiday politics are getting weird. The congresswoman in charge of House mailing standards, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., has reminded members that it’s now OK to use greetings such as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah” in mailings to their constituents, thanks to a rules change enacted last year.

The catch: This applies only if the greetings are “incidental.” That means no Christmas cards at taxpayer expense and, as the House administration rules page specifies, no Christmas-ey allusions through “colors, illustrations and greetings” on the calendars some members like to send out. I guess we won’t be seeing much red or green on those 2015 calendars from Congress!

The holidays would not be the holidays, of course, without a legal fight over a manger display at a county courthouse somewhere. Thanks to the life-sized nativity scene in Cherokee County, Texas, and the subsequent protest letter and lawsuit threat from the American Humanist Association, we have just the brouhaha we were counting on to brighten the holiday season this year. Ho, ho, ho.

Avoid the clichés?

Was that a holiday cliché? That’s been on my worries list, too, since I received an article from PR Daily warning of the tendency of many communications and media wretches to use the trite and terrible in our prose this time of year. Among the clichés to avoid, according to PR Daily, are anything beginning with ’twas, ’tis the season, or “it’s beginning to look at lot like …” Also out are references to Scrooge and the Grinch.

Bah humbug, say I.

For many years, I have been loath to wish people “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” which as a liberal I am not supposed to admit. To my mind, the former sounds too generic, too … Hallmark. Yet just in time to jar me from my holiday cynicism, a wise friend has reminded me there’s something legitimate at issue here — and, if we play our cards right, a chance for us to learn some religious diversity competencies that can make things go better in our pluralistic culture.

As pointed out by my retired law professor friend, people started getting careful about “Merry Christmas” out of a well-intentioned fear of offending people who don’t celebrate Christ’s birth — a group that is more numerous and vocal than several decades ago. But instead of covering our bases with generic “holiday” greetings, the professor suggests we learn enough about the religions of our co-workers and neighbors to convey seasonally and religiously appropriate well wishes during, say, Ramadan or Yom Kippur or, yes, Christmas.

It might take some effort, sure. But our current exertions to navigate holiday politics are getting pretty tiring, frankly. And as the growing body of evidence suggests, tiptoeing around Christmas is getting us nowhere.

Tom Krattenmaker writes on religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. His latest book is The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.

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