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Christmas controversy refers to controversy or disagreement surrounding the celebration or acknowledgment of the Christmas holiday in government, media, advertising and various secular environments. Modern-day controversy occurs mainly in the United States,[1][2] Canada,[3][4][5] and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom,[6][7] and usually stems from the holiday's significant annual role in Western economy in conjunction with its Christian significance in an increasingly religiously diversifying Western society. Some have used the label "War on Christmas" to describe this controversy.

In recent decades public, corporate, and government mention of the term "Christmas" during the Christmas and holiday season has declined and been replaced with a generic term— usually "holiday" or "winter"— and popular non-religious aspects of Christmas, such as secular Christmas carols and decorated trees are still prominently showcased and recognized, but are vaguely associated with unspecified "holidays", rather than with Christmas.[8]

Supporters of using the word "holidays" instead of "Christmas" cite the fact that many of the symbols and behaviors western societies have come to associate with Christmas were taken from non-Christian pagan traditions that pre-date the birth of Jesus. Specifically, symbols and behaviors such as caroling, decorated trees, mistletoe, holly wreaths and yule logs all have non-Christian origins.[9][10] From a historical context, "Christmas" only recently adopted these long-standing winter traditions into its own identity. Therefore, many non-Christians argue that the most accurate description of this season is the "holiday" season, not the "Christmas" season.

In the past, Christmas-related controversy was mainly restricted to concerns of a public focus on secular Christmas themes such as Santa Claus and gift giving rather than what is sometimes expressed by Christians as the "reason for the season"—the birth of Jesus. The term "Xmas", the subject of controversy during the mid-to-late 20th century, originated from the use of the Greek letter chi, Χ, as an abbreviation of Christ (Χριστός).[11]

Present-day controversy

History

Although a close variant of the term "War on Christmas" is believed to have first been coined by British American journalist Peter Brimelow in 1999,[12][13] the concept of a modern-day "War on Christmas" only became widely discussed in the United States and Canada during the first few years of the 2000s decade, often credited particularly to an exposure of the issue by American commentator Bill O'Reilly.[14][15]

The claim among Brimelow, O'Reilly, and later a variety of prominent media figures and others was that any specific mention of the term "Christmas" or its religious aspects was being increasingly censored, avoided, or discouraged by a number of advertisers, retailers, government (prominently schools), and other public and secular organizations.

A variety of Christians and non-Christians alike[8][16][17][18] have agreed with these claims to varying degrees. Some believe that this censorship also extends to Easter and Good Friday, where generic terms—particularly "Spring holiday"—are sometimes used to avoid reference to those holidays.

Government-related controversies

Christmas Day is recognized as an official federal holiday by the United States government,[19] and few have raised objections to this designation. However, many groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argue that government-funded displays of Christmas imagery and traditions violate the U.S. constitution—specifically the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment by Congress of a national religion. The battle over whether religious displays should be placed within public schools, courthouses and other government buildings, has been heated in recent years.[20]

Supreme Court rulings starting with Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984 have permitted religious themes in government-funded Christmas displays in their interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, though the inclusion of such displays is not mandated. Since these rulings have been splintered and have left governments uncertain of their limits, many such displays have included secular elements such as reindeer, snowmen and elves along with the religious elements.[21] Other recent court cases have brought up additional issues such as the inclusion of Christmas carols in public school performances, but none of these cases have reached the US Supreme Court.

A controversy regarding these issues arose in 2002, when the New York City public school system banned the display of nativity scenes, but allowed the display of supposedly less overtly religious symbols such as Christmas trees, Hanukkah menorahs, and the Muslim star and crescent.[22] Such a policy angered many, including commentator Bill O'Reilly, who in 2006 said such a policy was "anti-Christian".[23] The school system successfully defended its policy in Skoros v. City of New York (2006).[24]

In December 2007, a public controversy arose[3] when a public school in Ottawa, Canada planned to have the children in its primary choir sing a version of the song "Silver Bells" with the word "Christmas" removed.

In the United Kingdom there have also been some controversies, one of the most famous being the temporary promotion of the Christmas period as Winterval by Birmingham City Council in the late 1990s. There were also protests in November 2009 when the city of Dundee promoted its celebrations as the Winter Night Light festival, initially with no specific Christmas references.[25]

Christmas tree controversies

Since the 1980s,[26] there have been several instances in both the United States and Canada where official public mentions and references to Christmas trees were renamed to "holiday trees" for various reasons, mostly for an enforcement of separation of church and state or a recognition of cultural and religious diversity. Some have expressed outrage at these renamings,[27] while others supported them as being inclusive.[28][29][30]

One of the most prominent Christmas tree controversies came in 2005, when the city of Boston labeled their official decorated tree as a holiday tree, and the subsequent response from the Nova Scotian tree farmer who donated the tree was that he would rather have put the tree in a wood chipper than have it named a "holiday" tree.[1] Donnie Hatt, the donor, was also quoted as saying "Ever since I was born, a tree was put up for Christmas, not for holidays, because if you're going to do that you might as well put a tree up for Easter".[31]

Another controversy occurred in 2005 with the US hardware retailer Lowe's. Signage for their Christmas trees read "holiday trees" in English, but read árboles de Navidad (Christmas trees) in Spanish rather than árboles de feriados. In 2007, Lowe's started using the term "family tree", sparking protest from the American Family Association, but they have since claimed that this term was only a printing mistake.[32]

In 2009 in Jerusalem, Israel the Lobby for Jewish Values with support of the Jerusalem Rabbinate has handed out fliers condemning Christmas and have called for a boycott of restaurants and hotels that sell or put up Christmas trees and what the organization called "foolish" Christian symbols.[33]

Reclamation of the term "Christmas tree"

In recent years, efforts have also been made to rename official public holiday trees back to Christmas trees. In 2002, a bill was introduced in the California Senate to rename the State Holiday Tree the California State Christmas Tree;[34] while this measure failed, at the official lighting of the tree on December 4, 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to the tree as a Christmas tree in his remarks and in the press release his office issued after the ceremony.[35]

The Michigan Senate had a heated debate in 2005 over whether the decorated tree in front of the Michigan Capitol would continue to be called a holiday tree (as it had been since the early 1990s) or named a Christmas tree. The question was revisited in 2006, when the bipartisan Michigan Capitol Committee voted unanimously to use the term Christmas tree.[36] And in 2007, Wisconsin lawmakers considered whether to rename the tree in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda, a holiday tree since 1985, the Wisconsin State Christmas Tree.[37]

Retailer controversies

Since c. 2005, some non-profit organizations in the United States have petitioned for boycotts of various prominent secular organizations, particularly retail giants, demanding that they use the term "Christmas" rather than solely "holiday" in their print, TV, online, and in-store marketing and advertising. Most of these boycotts were organized by the American Family Association, a private, non-profit group which promotes conservative Christian values.

2005

  • After threats of boycotting,[38] the Sears Holdings Corporation (which owns Sears and Kmart) altered their marketing policies from using the term "holiday" to using the term "Christmas." The change of policy included the distribution of "Merry Christmas" signs to stores nationwide, and the changing of all instances of the term "holiday" to "Christmas" on their website and in stores. Sears also included a "very Merry Christmas" greeting at their website from December 8 through December 26, 2005. Kmart opened the 2006 Christmas season with their slogan "Where Christmas comes together", and several commercials acknowledging Christmas, including one with the tune to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".
  • In 2005, Wal-Mart was criticized by the Catholic League for avoiding the word "Christmas" in any of their marketing efforts."[2] The company had downplayed the term "Christmas" in much of its advertising for several years.[39] This caused some backlash among the public, prompting some groups to pass around petitions and threaten boycotts against the company, as well as several other prominent retailers that practiced similar obscurations of the holiday.[2] In 2006, in response to the public outcry, Wal-Mart announced that they were amending their policy and would be using "Christmas" rather than "holiday". Among the changes, they noted that the former "Holiday Shop" would become the "Christmas Shop", and that there would be a "countin' down the days to Christmas" feature.[2]
  • In 2005, Target Corporation was criticized by the American Family Association for their decision not to use the term "Christmas" in any of their in-store, online, or print advertising.[40] The AFA initiated a nation-wide boycott of the Target Corporation,[41] resulting in over 700,000 petition signatures, all of which were individually sent to Target customer service. Within a week of initiating the boycott, the AFA received an official letter from Target which indicated that they would begin incorporating the term "Christmas" in their advertising: "Over the course of the next few weeks, our advertising, marketing and merchandising will become more specific to the holiday that is approaching – referring directly to holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. For example, you will see reference to Christmas in select television commercials, circulars and in-store signage.".[42] In a 2007 interview with Chief Executive Magazine, the CEO of Target, Bob Ulrich, stated that Target's usage of "holiday" instead of "Christmas" was a mistake. "Frankly, we screwed up", he said.[43]

2006

  • When it was revealed in November 2006 that Wal-Mart would be using the term "Christmas" in their advertising campaign, an article about the issue initiated by USA Today pointed out that Best Buy Corporation would be among the retailers that would not be using "Christmas" at all in their advertising that year. Dawn Bryant, a Best Buy spokeswoman, stated: "We are going to continue to use the term holiday because there are several holidays throughout that time period, and we certainly need to be respectful of all of them."[44] The American Family Association launched a campaign against Best Buy's policy.[45] In reaction to the same policy, the Catholic League placed Best Buy on its 2006 Christmas Watch List.[46]
  • Around the same time that Best Buy Corporation was noted for having avoided using "Christmas" in their 2006 advertising, Gap, Inc. (which owns Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic) was also criticized for avoiding use of the term.[47] An unnamed Old Navy manager was quoted as saying: "We have a lot of Christmas gifts in our stores, but the word Christmas is not used here. Everything is holiday."[47] After mounting criticism about the issue, Gap, Inc. set up an option within their corporate telephone answering line that was specific to "holiday advertising questions".

2008

  • In late October 2008, US hardware retailer The Home Depot was criticized by the American Family Association for using terms such as "holiday" and "Hanukkah" on their website, but avoiding the term "Christmas".[48] The retailer responded by saying they will be adjusting their website to make references to Christmas more prominent.[49] It was later claimed by Snopes.com that the AFA's characterization of Home Depot's advertising was false, as the retailer's advertising had initially included several references to the word "Christmas".[50]

2009

  • On November 11, 2009, the American Family Association called for a "limited two-month boycott" of Gap, Inc over what they claimed was the "company's censorship of the word Christmas."[51][52] In an advertising campaign launched by Gap on November 12, the term "Christmas" was both spoken and printed on their website at least once, and was part of a television ad campaign sung as: "Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go Kwanzaa, Go solstice... go Christmas, go Hanukkah, go whatever holiday you Wannakuh".[53][54]. On November 17, AFA responded to this campaign by condemning the ads for references to the "pagan holiday" of solstice, and declined to call off the boycott.[55] On November 24, Gap responded to AFA's initial boycott, stating that they will launch a new television commercial on Thanksgiving weekend that will have a "very strong Christmas theme",[56] featuring its Supermodelquins using the greeting "Merry Christmas". The AFA has temporarily suspended their boycott of Gap until they can view the commercial.[56]

Historical controversy

Puritan era

The first documented Christmas controversy was Christian-led, and began during the English Interregnum, when England was ruled by a Puritan Parliament.[57] Puritans (including those who fled to America.[58]) sought to remove the remaining pagan elements of Christmas (see Pre-Christian origins of Christmas). During this period, the English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas entirely, considering it "a popish festival with no biblical justification", and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior.[59]

Incorrect birth date of Jesus

There is also controversy concerning the precise date of December 25 as the birthday of Jesus. In certain religions and myths, the 25th of December is the day assigned to the celebration of various sun gods. Most notably, Sol Invictus ("The Unconquerable Sun"), originally a Syrian god that was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelian, is traditionally celebrated on the 25th of December, as are several gods associated with the winter solstice in many pagan traditions.[60] However, it is possible that December 25 was simply set aside for celebration by the early Christians, since Jesus' exact birthday was unknown.

Protestantism

Prior to the Victorian era, Christmas in the United States was primarily a religious holiday observed by Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans. Its importance was often considered secondary to Epiphany and Easter.

As was the case with other Christian holidays, Christmas borrowed elements from pagan peoples, including yule logs, decorations such as candles, holly, and mistletoe. Christmas trees were seen as pagan in origin. Cited as proof is Jeremiah, 10:3-4, which states, "For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan. People deck it with silver and gold they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move." The Advent period (originally a fasting period meant to point to the Second coming of Christ), and gift giving (invented by Martin Luther to counter Saint Nicholas Day, 6th of December) were also pagan in origin.

During the various Protestant reformations, these paganizing elements were a source of controversy. Some sects, such as the Puritans, rejected Christmas as an entirely pagan holiday. Others rejected certain aspects of Christmas as paganizing, but wanted to retain the "essence" of the holiday as a celebration of the Christ's birth. This tension put in motion an ongoing debate within Christianity about the proper observance of Christmas.[61]

19th century

According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by Charles Dickens. In A Christmas Carol, Hutton argues, Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.[62]

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum contends that the modern celebration in the United States was developed in New York State from defunct and imagined Dutch and English traditions in order to re-focus the holiday from one where groups of young men went from house to house demanding alcohol and food into one that was focused on the happiness of children. He notes that there was deliberate effort to prevent the children from becoming greedy in response.[63]

Early 20th century

In the early 20th century, Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis had already noted a distinct split between the religious and secular observance of Christmas. In Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus, Lewis gives a satire of the observance of two simultaneous holidays in "Niatirb" (Britain backwards) from the supposed view of the Greek historian and traveller. One, "Exmas", is observed by a flurry of compulsory commercial activity and expensive indulgence in alcoholic beverages. The other, "Crissmas," is observed in Niatirb's temples. Lewis's narrator asks a priest why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas. He receives the reply:

"It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left." And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, "It is, O Stranger, a racket. . . "[64]

In The International Jew, Henry Ford railed against "Jewish opposition to Christmas," suggesting that Jews sought to interfere with the observance of Christian faith,[65] providing a specific list of attacks on Christmas.[66]

The December 1957 News and Views published by the Church League of America, an organization co-founded in 1937 by George Washington Robnett[67] attacked the use of Xmas in an article titled "X=The Unknown Quantity." The claims were picked up later by Gerald L. K. Smith who in December 1966 claimed that Xmas was a "blasphemous omission of the name of Christ" and that "'X' is referred to as being symbolical of the unknown quantity." Smith further argued that Jews introduced Santa Claus to suppress the New Testament accounts of Jesus, and that the United Nations at the behest of "world Jewry" had "outlawed the name of Christ."[68] Such claims are made in the face of documented centuries-long history of use of Χ (actually a chi) as an abbreviation for "Christ" (Χριστός) and possibly also a symbol of the cross.[69]

The Soviet Union and certain other Communist regimes banned overtly religious Christmas observances. Most customs traditionally associated with Christmas (like decorated trees, presents, and Ded Moroz) were later reinstated in Soviet society, but tied to New Year's Day instead; this tradition remains as of the present day. It should however be noted that most Russian Christians are of the Orthodox community, whose religious festivals (Christmas, Easter etc.), do not necessarily coincide precisely with those of the main western Christian churches (Catholic or Protestant).

Certain Christian groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and some Reformed and fundamentalist churches, continue to reject the holiday.

See also

References

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  33. Rabbis versus Christmas: Religious rivalry in Jerusalem benefits no one Haaretz December 17, 2009
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