5 Real Fronts In The War On Christmas

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- War On Christmas combatants concerned with keeping Christ in Xmas and heartbroken over the regular use of "Happy holidays" by retailers, officials and the general public alike may want to watch their flank.

Christmas is being assailed, but not by those accused of starting a "War On Christmas." There will still be Midnight Mass after the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. A version of O Holy Night will be played somewhere in this country on Christmas night whether people put words in Jesus' mouth on a billboard or not. Even The Daily Show host Jon Stewart's declared "War On Christmas" stands little chance of nuking the meaning out of the holiday, if only because he and Fox News ( NWS) commentator Bill O'Reilly seem to have reached a stalemate based on the promise of mutually assured destruction.

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Unless North Korea lobs some artillery over the Demilitarized Zone because the South Koreans lit a Christmas Tree-style tower near the border -- and we're not joking about this -- there's not going to be any culture-fueled "War on Christmas" this year. What there will be, however, is plenty of commercial encroachment on Christmas Day as celebrated by Christians and secular celebrants alike.

Why? Because it pays. The National Retail Federation is already predicting a 2.8% uptick in holiday spending this season and believes shoppers will leave $465.6 billion by the time it's over. By the looks of online shopping totals alone, someone's been very good this year. ComScore ( SCOR) says online spending from the beginning of November through Dec. 9 has already reached more than $24.6 billion. That's up 15% from the $21.4 billion hauled in at this time last year.

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That's more people buying into Christmas, New Year's and the various other happy holidays in December, but does it necessarily mean people have the time to celebrate Christmas? In a self-perpetuating problem, when employer demands mean parents have to be working the Kohl's ( KSS) checkout or serving at Denny's and the kids are on shift tearing tickets at the multiplex, there's less family togetherness and more reason for everyone else to head out to shop or catch a movie themselves.

We made a five-item list, checked it twice and came up with a handful of fronts where Christmas is under attack. It's not a religious war and it's not a cultural war: It's a battle for time and happiness. We'll leave it up to you to decide who's winning after these assaults:

Christmas retail openings
If you think retailers are above opening on Christmas Day, just ask Wal-Mart ( WMT), Target ( TGT), Best Buy ( BBY), Kohl's and Toys R Us how opening on Thanksgiving or the midnight after worked out for each of them.

ShopperTrak said early openings and deep discounts boosted Black Friday sales 6.6% this year to $11.4 billion. The National Retail Federation says about 14 million more shoppers came out for Black Friday weekend this year than they did last year, with each spending an average of $35 more.

They didn't even have to drive down to the store and trip an old lady for a television if they wanted to get a deal. Online sales on Thanksgiving day alone shot up 18%, to $479 million, and helped fuel online Thanksgiving weekend sales that swelled 16%, to more than $1 billion.

NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis says her group hasn't seen any large retailers announce Christmas Day openings just yet and says many of those openings are limited to grocery stores, but restaurant chains including Denny's, Boston Market, T.G.I. Friday's and Luby's are either open or willing to prepare heat-and-eat meals to be picked up the day before. Even healthy and beauty supply stores including Walgreens ( WAG) and CVS ( CVS) -- once just an emergency stop when the Christmas ham didn't agree or the eggnog spoiled - are open on the holiday and selling CDs, DVDs and whatever decorations are still in the seasonal aisle and haven't been cleared out for Valentine's Day candy.

Christmas movie releases
Hollywood cashing in on a little Christmas boredom is nothing new, and neither is the fact that it makes a killing by keeping the screens lit and popcorn popping once the presents have been opened.

More than two decades ago, director Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount ( VIA) got a huge Christmas present from movie audiences who shelled out $6.4 million to see The Godfather: Part III on Christmas Day in 1990. That ended up being just slightly less than 10% of the film's entire $66.7 million take, since Coppola's daughter didn't get the acting lessons she'd asked Santa for, Andy Garcia didn't get the Godfather-quality writing on his wish list and Al Pacino got the best gift of all when Michael Corleone was allowed to die and end the series.

Since then, the potential holiday haul has only increased as films including from Robin Williams' semi-true doctor comedy Patch Adams ($8 million in 1998), apologetic comic book film sequel Alien vs. Predator: Requiem ($9.5 million in 2007) and Academy Award nominees Ali ($10.2 million in 2001), Dreamgirls ($8.7 million in 2006) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ($11.8 million in 2008) all cleaned up with Christmas openings.

No film, however, has ever had a bigger box office receipt jammed into its stocking than the Robert Downey Jr.-driven Sherlock Holmes, which took in a whopping $24.6 million when Christmas Day fell on a Friday in 2009. More impressive is that the Warner Brothers release not only beat the $23.1 million brought in that day by James Cameron and Fox's 3-D juggernaut Avatar, but played Rudolph to a team of Christmas Day films that brought in $82.6 million that day alone. That was more than three times the take on Dec. 25, 2008, and would be $30 million more than audiences would spent on Christmas Day 2010 when Little Fockers led the slate of Saturday offerings.

That Christmas movie push isn't pulling back, either. This Christmas lineup alone features not one, but two newly released Stephen Spielberg films (Paramount's The Adventures of Tintin and Disney's ( DIS) War Horse), Sony's ( SNE) American adaptation of literary meme The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Fox and Cameron Crowe's family comedy We Bought A Zoo with Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson and and Summit Entertainment's token sci-fi CGI offering The Darkest Hour. Those are just the new offerings and don't count the latest Sherlock Holmes or Alvin and the Chipmunks sequels being released a week earlier.

Mealtime TV
Christmas morning remains largely untouched by programmers, but once the clock strikes noon the quest for viewership begins again.

Disney's already making a bid for holiday family time with War Horse, but why stop with a few hours when you can dominate the day? Disney-held ABC begins the assault by airing the Disney Parks Christmas Parade at noon Eastern featuring Justin Bieber, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, OneRepublic, 2011 American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, Jennifer Hudson and a bunch of other luminaries the Christmas-celebrating public is asked to enjoy or at least endure the other 364 days of the year.

Christmas Day is also when the viewer trap Disney laid with its 25 Days of Christmas promotion finally springs and hooks hapless holiday revelers into the creepily animated Tom Hanks-voiced holiday film The Polar Express that night.

For all of Disney's efforts, however, Mickey and company seem downright penitent on Christmas compared with the folks at TBS. That network and its corporate overlords at Time Warner ( TWX) continue to beat poor Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story into Americans' brains to the point that half the country has a vague sense of who Red Ryder is 47 years after his last comic book published, but think he's aiming to shoot their eye out. A family can take a post-present nap with A Christmas Story playing in the background and wake up four hours later to the same image of Flick's tongue stuck to the flagpole that sent them off to slumber.

It can be argued that all of this is taking away from family time, but programmers would be wise to point out that TV and dinner have gone together since Swanson started making pre-fab, lap-friendly meals in 1953. They'll also note that some of the biggest ratings of the day don't go to their holiday specials, but to ...

The NBA's Christmas games
Two major sports leagues locked out their players last year, but both will be playing on Christmas Day.

One saved its full season and moved all but one of its games to Christmas Eve and scheduled its only remaining game for 8:20 p.m. EST. The other had to shorten its season and will have five games running nonstop from noon until about midnight. Guess which is which?

Yep, NBA, you sure know how to keep everyone in the holiday spirit. The NBA has been playing on Christmas since 1946, but usually limits the action to a doubleheader of select matchups. Not this year. The day kicks off with Time Warner counterprogramming Ralphie and his BB gun with the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks at noon EST on TNT. Disney takes over for the rest of the day with a Miami Heat/Dallas Mavericks NBA Championship rematch at 2:30 p.m. And a Chicago Bulls/L.A. Lakers matchup at 5 p.m., both on ABC. Once 8 p.m. rolls around, Disney switches it over to ESPN for the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder ta 8 p.m. before closing out the night with the L.A. Clippers and the Golden State Warriors at 10:30 p.m.

All big matchups, all very time-zone appropriate and all looking very desperate when you consider that the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are the only teams going for the NFL on a day that's usually reserved for its sport and that college football limited its bowl-game lineup to only one event: the Advocare Independence Bowl between the University of Missouri and University of North Carolina, two 7-6 teams.

Why hasn't the NBA been accused of declaring war on Christmas not only for its fans, but for 10 teams worth of players? Not only have they done it before, but the country loves it. Ratings for last year's ABC doubleheader were up 45% compared with Christmas Day 2009, while Nielsen ( NLSN) said ESPN's three games averaged a 20% increase.

The NBA also knows how to write its holiday storylines. Last year's game between the Lakers and the Heat not only featured Kobe Bryant and LeBron James head-to-head, but the reigning NBA champs taking on the heirs apparent. It resulted in a 96-80 win for the Heat that gave ABC its highest Christmas Day rating since Bryant matched up against nemesis and former teammate Shaquille O'Neal and the Heat back in 2004.

Sometimes the war on Christmas just boils down to giving people what they want, which is why the biggest threat to Christmas happiness may be ...

Christmas Blue Laws
Stores stay open, movie theaters pack in crowds and those who don't celebrate the holiday can still have a beer at certain T.G.I. Friday's on Christmas night because there's demand for it.

Blue laws, however, don't give a damn about your demand and are going to make you have a merry Christmas the way they see fit. Whether you like it or not.

Retailers in Massachusetts ran afoul of that state's 17th century, Puritan-scrawled blue laws when they wanted to begin Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Kohl's and Macy's ( M) were all forced to postpone their doorbuster sales until after midnight.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, joins Indiana and Oklahoma in banning liquor sales on Christmas Day itself, meaning residents either have to stock up or just face the fact that the eggnog's faded into Christmas past once the bowl is empty. Shoppers in Arkansas, Minnesota, Mississippi and North Dakota will have similar problems stocking up thanks to Sunday blue laws that keep this Christmas covered.

That's still a better shake than Paramus, N.J., will get this year. The beating heart of New Jersey's mall and consumer culture slows to a murmur on Sundays, when blue laws there keep its three malls closed and only the local Shop-Rite, movie theaters and restaurants open. Even if retailers wanted to open doors on Christmas Day this year or last-minute shoppers wanted to walk through them, this spot only a few miles from New York City would still halt sales of everything from iPhones in the Apple ( AAPL) Store at Garden State Plaza to shelves and storage containers at the Ikea only a short drive away.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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