Monday, December 12, 2005

Pitts on Christmas

Leave it to the right-wingers to make something as nice and giving as Christmas into a political bludgeon. But Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald isn’t ashamed to take them on.

Let me begin by speaking the forbidden words.

Merry Christmas.

There, I said it. So did the sky crack? Did the oceans turn to blood? Is a horde of angry Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists storming the gates, demanding a retraction? Or does the world look much the same as it did before?

I’m betting on the last.

So forgive me if I don’t take up arms in the so-called War on Christmas. In case you hadn’t heard about it — in other words, in case you have a life — let me bring you up to speed.

Recently, conservative and evangelical observers have been loudly complaining about what they call a campaign to de-Christianize Christmas, to unmoor it from its origin as the birthday of Christ. They have a litany of complaints, but seem particularly vexed by word that some retailers have been instructing their sales people to greet customers with “Happy holidays” as opposed to “Merry Christmas.” This, as a way to avoid excluding people of other faiths and no faith at all.

It’s been a heated battle, and the complainers have not been guilty of understatement.

“A secular and atheistic jihad,” cries a guy named David Huntwork on the GOPUSA website.

“Frightening,” declares a traumatized Bill O’Reilly.

“A war on Christians,” says John Gibson, who wrote a book on the subject.

And a writer on the WorldNetDaily website warns of the possible “persecution and outright criminalization of Christianity.”

Well, gee golly.

They’re putting so much energy into defending Christmas that one feels downright churlish for pointing out that no one’s attacking it. All we’re seeing here is an ever more pluralistic society struggling to balance the faith of the majority with the rights and feelings of the minority.

Is it an imperfect process? Believe it.

For instance, the 80-foot decorated spruce erected at the U.S. Capitol in early December has been designated the “holiday tree.” That’s stupid. It’s a Christmas tree. And if — big if — it’s true, as some conservative groups claim, that a Wisconsin elementary school rewrote the lyrics to Silent Night to make them secular, somebody should be poked in the eye with a candy cane. That’s stupid, too.

On the other hand, the American Family Association is boycotting Target stores to force them to say “Merry Christmas” and that’s hardly a sign of intelligence. How is the cashier supposed to know whether a customer is Christian?

More to the point, why is pluralism so hard for these people? Why does it make them feel so put upon? Am I the only one who sends “Merry Christmas” cards to his Christian friends and “Happy holidays” cards to his other friends and doesn’t find it especially taxing?

What’s offensive here is not the imperfect balancing of minority and majority. What’s offensive — also surreal and absurd — is the notion that Christianity, a faith claimed by 76 percent of all Americans, is somehow being intimidated into nonexistence. Some of the earliest Christians were stoned for their beliefs. In some parts of the world today, Christianity is a crime punishable by death. And the AFA is feeling persecuted because a sales clerk says “Happy holidays?”

That’s not persecution. It’s a persecution complex.

And it trivializes what Christians claim to uphold: the baby born of a virgin’s womb.

Of what importance is a salesman’s greeting if you’re one of the 76 percent who believe that? The greeting that matters was spoken by angels. The Book of Luke says they appeared before shepherds in a field: “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Linus said it best. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”