BOSTON (MainStreet) -- The problem with a made-up battle: How do you know when you've won? That may very well be the challenge faced by combatants in the annual "War on Christmas."
This year, as has been the case for many holiday seasons, battle lines have been drawn between those who want "Christmas," in word and deed, to be front row and center and others who rely more on expressions of "holiday" cheer for reasons of convenience or inclusion.
There is no denying that there are some yuletide combatants who push the issue.
For example, the Freedom From Religion Foundation -- a national coalition of atheists, agnostics and "free thinkers" -- routinely launches legal challenges to nativity scenes erected on public spaces, demanding that its own signs and banners be placed alongside the displays. Its message: "At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail/There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell/There is only our natural world/Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
It is hardly unreasonable to assume that people of faith will find such an approach far more upsetting than merely making sure their Jewish or Muslim neighbors aren't excluded or offended with a well-meaning expression of holiday cheer.
But beyond such obvious conflicts, there isn't much evidence to suggest that Christmas is under any sort of coordinated attack worthy of the non-stop rhetoric that erupts each year.
A Gallup poll conducted with USA Today found that while about 80% of the U.S. identifies with the Christian faith, more than 93% say they celebrate Christmas. A survey conducted by the National Retail Federation found that 91% of consumers will celebrate Christmas, compared with 5% for Hanukkah and 2% that observe Kwanzaa.
Christmas shopping, by whatever name a consumer might tag it, has a staggering financial impact. NRF estimates that sales throughout Thanksgiving weekend were more than $52 billion. It estimates that total holiday sales will be in the range of $465.6 billion, with as many as 500,000 seasonal employees hired to serve customers. And it's not for Hanukkah or Kwanzaa.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, last year 27 million natural Christmas Trees were sold, with a market value of $976 million; artificial trees had sales of 8.2 million in the U.S. and a retail value of $530 million. According to data from the NRF and BIGresearch, the U.S. is on target to spend more than $6 billion on Christmas decorations this year.
A recent survey by Rasmussen found that a vast majority of respondents preferred "Merry Christmas" over "Happy Holiday" as a greeting (69% vs. 24%).
If so many Americans, regardless of religion or how some phrase their greetings, are spending so much money on Christmas, is there really evidence of assault worthy of the barrage of commentary and outraged pundits?
Retailers enter the fray
Retailers get caught in the Christmas crossfire. Each year, the American Family Association -- a group founded by Pastor David Wildmon that bills itself as being "on the frontlines of America's culture war" -- issues a list assessing how "Christmas-friendly" retailers are in their advertisements, newspaper inserts, radio/television spots, Web sites and in-store signs.
Among the companies cited as being "against Christmas" this year were: Banana Republic; Barnes & Noble (Stock Quote: BKS); Family Dollar Stores (Stock Quote: FDO); Foot Locker (Stock Quote: FL); Gap Inc. (Stock Quote: GPS); Limited Brands (Stock Quote: LTD); Maurice's; Office Depot (Stock Quote: ODP); Old Navy; Radio Shack; Staples (Stock Quote: SPLS); Supervalu (Stock Quote: SVU); and Victoria's Secret.
Some of the retailers who earned the group's praise for not shying away from promoting Christmas by name were: Amazon (Stock Quote: AMZN); Bed, Bath & Beyond (Stock Quote: BBBY); Best Buy (Stock Quote: BBY); Costco (Stock Quote: COST); CVS (Stock Quote: CVS); Dick's Sporting Goods (Stock Quote: DKS); Kohl's (Stock Quote: KSS); Lowe's (Stock Quote: LOW); Macy's (Stock Quote: M); Nordstrom (Stock Quote: JWN); Rite Aid (Stock Quote: RAD); Sears (Stock Quote: SHLD); Target (Stock Quote: TGT); Walgreen's (Stock Quote: WAG); and Wal-Mart (Stock Quote: WMT).
The full lists can be found here.
Safeway (Stock Quote: SWY), Starbucks (Stock Quote: SBUX) and Whole Foods (Stock Quote: WFM) were among the companies tagged as being "marginal on Christmas." Starbucks, for example, does feature menu items with "Christmas" in the name, but not as many as critics would like to see.
Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit "litigation, education and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life and the family," also offers an annual list of who is "naughty" or "nice" when it comes to promoting Christmas by name.
American Eagle Outfitters (Stock Quote: AEO) is knocked for offering a "holiday wish list" but an "entire site purged of 'Christmas' reference."
By contrast, Chic-fil-A earned praise for having employee greet customers by saying "Merry Christmas" and in-store Christmas carols "that reference 'God,' 'Christ' and true meaning of 'Christmas.'"
J.C. Penney (Stock Quote: JCP), although listing more than a dozen examples of "Christmas" being used by name for products and advertising, was still targeted by the group, which encouraged members to call its headquarters and "encourage them to add 'Christmas,' instead of the words 'holiday' or 'gifts' more often in all of their advertising."
The success of these campaigns may indicate that big business is not nearly as reluctant to wish you a "Merry Christmas" as all the rhetoric might suggest. While boycotts and letter-writing campaigns certainly yield influence, it is doubtful companies head into the season unaware of the scrutiny they might face. In fact, the speedy response that often follows criticism suggests that critics who accuse them of being willing to insult Christian customers rather than offend people of other faiths and cultures may be making incorrect assumptions.
PetSmart (Stock Quote: PETM), for example, was singled out as worthy of a boycott.
On Oct. 28, AFA wrote: "At PetSmart, Christmas doesn't exist. It is not to be found anywhere on their Web site. We checked out the local PetSmart store and there was no Christmas there, either."
Two days later, PetSmart's response earned it an upgrade (although no formal apology). It seems the lack of Christmas cheer had more to do with the fact that it was still October. Halloween was still days away.
"Some companies refrain from any mention of Christmas in their holiday promotions, but PetSmart is not one of them," the company wrote. "We have many customers who celebrate Christmas, and just as we have done in past years, we will continue our tradition of holding an annual Countdown to Christmas sale. Several of our upcoming store and online promotions will also continue to expressly celebrate Christmas and, since we have many customers who celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other faith-based and cultural holidays and events this time of year, several of our promotions will also expressly celebrate these events as well."
It took only a day after being described as "naughty" by Liberty Counsel for Walgreens to actively make its case for being restored to the "nice" list. Once again the offense was using "holiday" instead of "Christmas" in advertisements appearing before Thanksgiving Day -- arguably one of the "holidays" for which it wanted to sell products.
"Oh, the trees advertised in their circular? They are s just "pre-lit trees," AFA chided, adding, "At Walgreens, Christmas doesn't exist!"
A statement issued by the retailer offered the following explanation and polite rebuttal: "We completely agree that while others celebrate different holidays, we should use the word 'Christmas' to describe items we are selling for Christmas decorations and gifts. As Christmas draws closer, there will be plenty of messages in our store and online that say 'Merry Christmas.'"
Scrutiny has scored similar results from Sears, Kmart, Target, Home Depot and Wal-Mart in recent years -- all to the bewilderment of people who thought Christians hated the commercialization of Christmas, but are now seeing the most vocal not just insisting that retailers exploit the season, but they do so earlier and earlier.
This year's key battles
Beyond scoring the Christmas-ready character of national retailers, the war is manifesting itself in some unique ways this year.
GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry leaped into the Christmas battleground with his most recent TV ad in Iowa.
In it, the Texas governor declares: "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian. But you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage."
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), a member of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, introduced a resolution that "recognizes the importance of the symbols and traditions of Christmas," "strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas" and "expresses support for the use of these symbols and traditions by those who celebrate Christmas."
It's also now a world war.
"North Korea has claimed that South Korea's plan to place three Christmas light displays in the shape of large trees is 'a mean attempt for psychological warfare.' Their government is not just content to ban the celebration of Christmas inside their nation, but is willing to declare Christmas lights seen from their borders to be similar to an act of war," says a statement from Liberty Counsel.
The group ties the Korean conflicts back to events on the homefront: "Here in America, a Texas school banned Santa; a California school went another step and also banned poinsettias and Christmas trees, alleging that each was too religious," it says. "In addition, Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island renamed a Christmas tree a holiday tree against the wishes of the tree's donor and the outcry across his state. It appears Gov. Chafee is well-suited for survival at the North Korea border. His policies are better for kowtowing to the Commies than celebrating Christmas." (The policy on naming the tree, however, predated his arrival in office.)
Chafee isn't the only Northeast governor facing off with critics over a "holiday tree." Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has also taken his lumps for avoiding the word "Christmas" in holiday lighting invitations but singling out a Menorah display.
Reader comments on the Web site of the Boston Herald, a conservative tabloid often critical of Patrick, were nearly unanimous in the umbrage taken by his phrasing. Among them (printed here as they appeared online):
"GOV 'MIGHTY MOUSE' CAN GO TO HADES... HE WILL BE LIGHTING OUR MERRY CHRISTMAS TREE... AS FOR THE JEWISH CANDELABRA, IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH JESUS CHRIST'S REBIRTH...WHAT IS THIS MENNORAH ALL ABOUT ANYWAY?????????? THROW IN... KWANZAH....WHAT THE HECK IS THAT??????????"
"I will tell you why Patrick and all the other clowns dont use Christmas tree. See Obama is a muslim and muslims hate Christians and they dont want to offend the muslims and their buddy Obama."
Challenges to public nativity scenes in Texas, Oregon and Pennsylvania have attracted national media coverage. A cancer center in South Carolina banned all religious Christmas decorations (as well as initially, the very secular Santa Claus) and, a traditional event in Tulsa, Okla., is now dubbed a "Parade of Lights," angering longtime fans of that city's Christmas procession. And Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly are duking it out on cable (with tongues apparently firmly in cheek), with O'Reilly saying with amusement that Stewart was going to hell for literally declaringwar on Christmas.
There's a new weapon in the arsenal of Christmas defenders: a War on Christmas-themed movie. The synopsis for Christmas With a Capital C, as offered by Pure Flix Entertainment:
"When Mayor Dan Reed's (Ted McGinley) high school rival Mitch Bright (Daniel Baldwin) returns home after 20 years, he takes offense in seeing the town's nativity scene in violation of separation of church and state. Mitch wants the nativity scene removed and the word Christmas switched to Happy Holidays. Dan's wife Kristen (Nancy Stafford) and their daughters show the true meaning of Christmas by launching a "Christmas with a Capital C" campaign as an effort to keep the town together."
Snarky comments on the YouTube page featuring he movie trailer included: "How the Strawman Stole Christmas," and "Can't we put aside our differences and celebrate Ted McGinley getting work?"