Happy, Merry

Like all seasons, the annual pre-Christmas holiday culture war must come to an end, and so must this blog. All told, this year was far calmer than past--there have been fewer examples of people throwing down in lawsuits (or fisticuffs), fewer boycotts and protests of stores that wished folks "Happy Holidays." That's not to say these things haven't gone on; the blog you've been reading has certainly documented that. But this year was certainly slightly toned down compared to past years.

Why? There are many possible reasons, not least of which is the fact that so many retail stores did include "Christmas" in their marketing and advertising this year.

But what better way to end this year's blog than with this story out of Goleta, California. John Dickinson, the manager of the toll-free phone hotline for the Santa Barbara visitor's guide has been fielding hundreds of calls from children who mistake "Santa Barbara" for "Santa Claus." Instead of acting like a Grinch, Dickinson is playing along, happily asking the children if they've been naughty or nice, and asking them what they want for Christmas.

Happy, Merry, everyone.

Would the Founding Fathers Have Fought Christmas Wars?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has assembled an impressive collection of information on the Christmas wars in historical and cultural context.  Read this transcript of a recent roundtable discussion about how the founding fathers understood the role of religion in the public square, and how those insights might guide a modern conversation about the holiday culture wars.  Or, explore this backgrounder that details the history of holiday displays and the federal courts.

While you're in a political mood, check out Stateline.org's annual roundup of governors' holiday cards. Did your state wish you "Season's Greetings," "Merry Christmas," or "Joy, Hope and Happiness?" 

Unto Us a Komodo Dragon is Born?

Flora the Komodo dragon, a resident of Chester Zoo in England, has never mated, yet is expected to hatch eight babies, possibly on Christmas. In what zoologists are calling a possible "Christmas virgin birth," Flora's offspring represent the largest species known to self-fertilize.

Peace on Earth...and in Iraq

The Catholic peace group Pax Christi has a Christmas wish that has to do with a real war--the war in Iraq.  The group has called on President Bush to declare a Christmas day cease-fire in Iraq. The goal of the cease-fire would be to demonstrate that the administration is genuinely considering changes in strategy that might halt the escalating violence in that country.

"By calling for a Christmas ceasefire the Bush administration can send a powerful signal that it is truly seeking a new direction," said Dr. Rosemarie Pace, Director of Pax Christi Metro New York, in a statement.

Why Christmas Wars Shouldn't Disrupt 'Real Fun'

This 1908 quote from the author and theologian G.K. Chesterton contains reassuring words for anyone trying to keep "real fun" in their holiday despite the Christmas culture wars:

"The Christmas celebrations will certainly remain, and will certainly survive any attempt by modern artists, idealists, or neo-pagans to substitute anything else for them. For the truth is that there is an alliance between religion and real fun, of which the modern thinkers have never got the key, and which they are quite unable to criticize or to destroy. All Socialist Utopias, all new Pagan Paradises promised in this age to mankind have all one horrible fault. They are all dignified.

But being undignified is the essence of all real happiness, whether before God or man. Hilarity involves humility; nay, it involves humiliation. This is why religion always insists on special days like Christmas, while philosophy always tends to despise them. Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he is tickled."

Speaking of Fun...How About 24 Christmas Trees?

Check out this video from CNN.com (note: your pop-up blocker will probably not allow you to immediately launch the video. Simply click "launch CNN video player" from this link and it will pop up.) about a Vermont couple that has--count 'em--24 Christmas trees in their historic home. From Candyland to Victorian to flamingo themes, there is even a tree in the bathroom. Said one member of the couple, some people might think they're crazy, but "when they walk in the door, 'crazy' becomes 'thank you.'"

Is that a Gay Nativity in Italy's Parliament?

Reuters is reporting this story out of Italy today, where two leftist lawmakers scandalized their colleagues when they placed figurines representing two homosexual couples in the Italian parliament's official nativity scene. The couples were lying down and embracing each other among the shepherds who witnessed Jesus' birth. A group of their fellow legislators released a statement expressing their displeasure: "This is a vulgar and unacceptable double attack against both a (national) institution as well as a religious symbol."

Rest Ye Merry Not-So-Gentle "Men"

Viewers of the hit CBS sitcom, "Two and a Half Men" may be used to Charlie Sheen's character's particular brand of sexual innuendo. But Christians are none too pleased about a recent episode in which Sheen is shown lighting Christmas candles on Christmas Eve, singing the charming tune, "Joy to the world, I'm getting laid." The song goes on to make reference to "playing jingle balls," and later he sings, "Gloria, tonight I'm boinking Gloria." Watch a video clip of the song here.

According to this article by the Christian news site WorldNetDaily.com, the American Family Association (AFA) is calling for a boycott of CBS and the show's sponsors if the network does not apologize for the offensive lyrics. The AFA has released an action alert urging its members to email CBS demanding an apology.

"The network and sponsors paid Sheen to mock Christ, Christmas, and Christians," AFA president Donald E. Wildmon told WorldNetDaily, "Many in the Christian community are growing tired of this bigotry by the networks and Hollywood."

Christmas Obscenities, or Art?

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights' president Bill Donohue is upset about more examples of what he calls "disturbing events this Christmas season." Today, he mentioned a Corpus Christi, Texas art exhibit that depicts a Last Supper where a man is eating dinner with rats and a nude virgin mother with a rosary bead umbilical cord, among other images. He also recoiled from Jessica Delfino's "Merry S--tmas" tour, which she describes as "rife with Christmas-themed debauchery."

"None of this is without malice," said Donohue.

When the War on Christmas Pays

It may seem that Bill Donohue is the lone voice in the Christmas War wilderness this year, but a number of other Christian advocacy groups are energizing their memberships on the Christmas battlefield...all the way to the bank.  This article from Religion News Service chronicles the different groups that have offered bumper stickers, buttons, and memos, all in exchange for donations, that enlist Christians to "defend Christmas."

Festivus, Nine Years Hence

The Boston Globe reports today on a Festivus celebration in the Boston suburb of Quincy. The pseudo-holiday is part of the long reach of "Seinfeld," as it originates in a 1997 episode called "The Strike." The story goes that Frank Costanza, played so skillfully by Jerry Stiller, invented the holiday after he became disgusted at how ugly (and violent) the toy store Christmas battle over coveted toys had become. His holiday, "a Festivus for the rest of us," involves gathering around a plain aluminum pole, demonstrating great feats of strength, and airing grievances our loved ones have caused us in the past year.

Anecdotally, visits to this Festivus website suggest that observances of the stranger-than-fiction holiday are on the rise. Meanwhile, who can tell what next year's 10th annual Festivus might bring?

Bill Donohue's Busy Season

Readers of this blog know that Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is among the few conservative Christian voices fully engaged in the "war on Christmas" this year. This Associated Press article lists Donohue's major efforts this year, along with the philosophy behind his approach to the Christmas season: He wants to stop the "diluting and dumbing down of the cultural and religious significance of Christmas." He told the AP, "Every day I'm putting out a statement about the latest absurdity ... This time of year, you can just bank on it."

Having a Secular Holiday and Loving It

Can the atheists among us genuinely enjoy the holiday season? Yes, according to David Koepsell from the Council for Secular Humanism. Koepsell shares with Beliefnet his tips for having good secular fun this holiday season, from how to organize your own celebration to how to "live and let live."

Meanwhile, an editorial in yesterday's New York Times (note: registration is required to read this article) unpacked "the Grinch delusion" that atheists are all bah-humbug at this time of year. The writer checked in with well-known atheist authors Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and confirmed the presence of Christmas trees, big family parties, and gifts in Harris' home. As for Dawkins, he believes that Christmas has been secularized to the point that it has been divorced from its religious context. Therefore, he said, "I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”

Is a Gingerbread Nazi Free Speech?

The Associated Press is reporting this story from Oberlin, Ohio, where a local hardware store employee set up a window display featuring gingerbread men in Nazi garb, saluting a gingerbread Hitler. The hardware store's owner insisted that he remove the display, which was put up last night, the night before the beginning of Hanukkah. The man has re-displayed his creation in an empty storefront of the neighboring town of Wellington.

The man, Keith McGuckin, says his display is meant to "provoke thought," not offend. He told the AP, "I remember thinking to myself, 'What's the worst thing a gingerbread man can do?'" he said. "They're just copying things that people have done. There are no hidden messages here."

Chrismas Hissies

Beliefnet's own "Crunchy Con" blogger, Rod Dreher, recently shared a story that highlights the heightened sensitivity of the season. In Chappaqua, New York, a merchant put up blue-and white snowflake flags with the word "Welcome" printed on them. Apparently some in the town felt the flags were too reminiscent of traditional Hanukkah colors, were shaped like dreidels, and had Hebrew-style lettering, so they complained--vocally--to the woman who had purchased them. So much for her attempt to spiff up the shopping street.

Crunchy's musing question: "What is it about the holiday season that turns people into such pluperfect asses?"

Super Size Tree

What's the newest, fast-growing niche demographic in the Christmas tree marketplace? Apparently, according to a Boston Globe article, it's those families that crave the biggest Christmas tree on the block. It only makes sense, the article points out, that with the proliferation of large homes in recent years, people would require trees that filled up their spaces. These trees, which are between 12 and 17 feet high, can run upwards of $250--and that's not counting the ornaments.

Coming Down with 'Anti-Christmas Fever?'

Jewish Olympic skater Sasha Cohen was dragged into it when a government employee called the cops to get a choir to stop singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" at the rink where she was practicing.  Delray Beach, Fla. elementary school principal Sandra Byrne eschewed Christmas trees and menorahs in favor of sweater-wearing teddy bears and "winter celebration" parties because of it. And in one Michigan school district, it means no more than 30 percent of the chorus' songs can be on religious themes.

These are but the latest in a long list of examples of what Catholic League president Bill Dononhue calls "anti-Christmas fever," which he continues to chronicle daily on the League's website.

'Tis the Season for Giving

Many thanks to Beliefnet member FutureShy for sharing the link to this organization, Christmas in the City, as an inspiring example of communities working together to make the winter holidays a time of true giving and sharing. The Boston-based group works to support and mentor the city's homeless families, helping them eventually transition out of homeless and into jobs and permanent homes.  All this, while giving needy families the Christmas celebration they would certainly not have otherwise had.

And Now, a Comment from Your Blogger

Sometimes a situation arises that requires further comment, so I, your friendly neighborhood Holiday Culture Wars blog compiler, wrote and read this piece on NPR's "All Things Considered" last night concerning this week's events at the Seattle airport.

Christmas Has Returned to Seattle

The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has replaced the trees it removed after the threat of a lawsuit by a rabbi who wanted a menorah to be displayed in the airport as well. Port Chairwoman Pat Davis said the trees were replaced when the rabbi said he no longer had plans to sue for the menorah. "He pulled that stinger out, and it's wonderful," Davis told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The rabbi has agreed to meet with airport officials to plan next year's holiday displays, though this year there are no plans for the airport to erect a menorah.

Meanwhile, could the next controversy erupt over the fact that the airport calls the trees "holiday trees" rather than "Christmas trees?"

'O Come All Ye Secular College Kids?'

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights continues its "Christmas Watch" this week with a release detailing how some colleges are ignoring Christmas in their December holiday plans. Neither Missouri State University nor SUNY Buffalo list Christmas on their lists of December celebrations (though as Catholic League president Bill Donohue points out, Missouri State does list a misspelled "Kwanza").

Donohue showed his frustration with this tongue-in-cheek proposal: "Why not just start the academic year a month earlier and cancel December?"

Treeless in Seattle

In one of the first loud public tussles of the year about holiday displays, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport took down nine Christmas trees today when faced with the possibility of a lawsuit by a Jewish group that wanted to put up a Hanukkah menorah in the airport. "We decided to take the trees down because we didn't want to be exclusive," airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt told the Associated Press.

Citing advice from lawyers that keeping the Christmas trees meant the airport would have to consent to any other religious displays that might be requested--not only a menorah--the airport opted to simply un-deck the halls. Harvey Grad, the lawyer for the rabbi who had requested the menorah display said he was disappointed in the airport's action. "They've darkened the hall instead of turning the lights up," he said.

The First Family's "Holiday" Card

Wal-Mart might be wishing everyone "Merry Christmas" after last year's boycotts and other December debacles, but for the second consecutive year, the White House is sending out a holiday card that does not mention "Christmas." The card features a quote from the 119th Psalm ("Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.") and this wish: "May the light of the season shine bright in your heart now and in the new year."

U. of Texas' Idea of an ACLU Christmas

This week, the "Young Conservatives of Texas" made news with their "ACLU Nativity Scene" display on the University of Texas' Austin campus. The conservative group went after the American Civil Liberties Union for its stances on major hot-button political issues. Instead of Mary and Joseph, the Texas display featured "Gary and Joseph," targeting the ACLU's support of gay marriage rights. The three wise men are represented by Lenin, Marx, and Stalin, Jesus is missing from the manger, and Nancy Pelosi is depicted in the form of an angel. The display, said Young Conservatives chairman Tony McDonald in a statement, is "a tongue-in-cheek way of showing the many ways that the ACLU and the far left are out of touch with the values of mainstream America."

See photographs of the display here.

Poll: Few Mind "Merry Christmas"

A new poll out by Zogby International reported this week that 32 percent of Americans say they are offended when a store clerk wishes them "Happy Holidays" instead of “Merry Christmas." Luckily for them, most major retailers are offering Christmas greetings this year, which works out just fine for the 95 percent of consumers who say they are not offended when a store clerk wishes them "Merry Christmas."

Why Do You Hate Christmas?

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, whose president Bill Donohue is an annual participant in protesting the so-called "War on Christmas," has announced an unusual new contest. It's called the "Why I Hate Christmas" contest, and its tongue-in-cheek purpose is to get secularists to analyze their behaviors and attitudes to discern why they are so anti-Christmas.

Questions contestants need to answer include "List all phobias, e.g. fear of God" and "List all superstitions, e.g. belief in global warming."  "Petty" Larceny, Family Style

Santa Claus isn't the only one watching your pre-Christmas behavior, kids. FoxNews.com is reporting a story about a 12-year-old South Carolina boy who was arrested on petty larceny charges after he opened a Christmas gift before the big day.   

The Nintendo Game Boy Advance was wrapped and tucked under the family's tree by his great-grandmother, and the young man was given strict instructions by her and his mother not to touch the gift until Christmas Day. When he yielded to temptation, swiping the gift and then denying he knew where it was, his mother called the police and had him arrested. The mother said she was "trying to get him some kind of help," as this is not the first time the boy has been involved in an incident like this (she had previously caught him shoplifting from stores and stealing money from her.)

Mom told Fox News that the boy "showed no remorse" when the police arrived. 

Colbert's "Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude"

Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert devoted his "Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger" segment last night to the December Dilemma in all its glory.  A key "wag" was aimed at First Lady Laura Bush, who opened the White House's Christmas display this week with the theme "Deck the Halls and Welcome All." Colbert's beef? Mrs. Bush failed to include the word "Christmas" in the display. He urged her to "jam the word Christmas into the theme any way you can." The best way of doing this would be to call it, "Deck Christmas the Christmas Halls Christmas and Christmas Welcome Christmas All Christmas."

As he put it, "Go crazy, just get it done."

Report: No 'Chrismukkah' This Year

Ninety percent of interfaith families who are raising their children as Jews will not dissuade non-Jewish relative from giving their children Christmas gifts, reports a new survey from InterfaithFamily.com. But despite this gesture toward observing both Hanukkah and Christmas, 78 percent say they will keep the holiday observances separate, as opposed to combining them into one big winter fete.

Other interesting findings from the survey: only 18 percent of these interfaith families will attend Christmas church services; almost all--99 percent--will light Hanukkah menorahs; and 44 percent plan to decorate a Christmas tree. And finally, in a nod to the ubiquity of holiday stress, only 53 percent of the respondents say they anticipate enjoying Hanukkah this year (the finding for Christmas is 30 percent). Far more--91 percent for Hanukkah and 76 percent for Christmas--say their children will enjoy the holidays.

'Tis the Season...to Fake Sickness?

Time flies in December, often leaving people frantic to accomplish their gift-buying, baking, decorating, and other holiday tasks. One new survey shows, according to this article posted on CNN.com today, that people create more free time in December by calling in sick when they are feeling nothing more than a little stressed out. Almost one-third of workers reported faking an illness, mostly concentrated around holiday time. But beware--27 percent of managers said they had fired employees after discovering their fraudulent sick days.

Here Comes Festivus

Ever since the "Seinfeld" episode called "The Strike" first aired in 1997, people across America have united in the joyful cries of "A Festivus for the Rest of Us!" The fictional holiday created by Jerry Stiller's character Frank Costanza is observed by putting up an unadorned pole, performing feats of strength, and telling loved ones how they have disappointed us over the past year, all as a way of protesting the over-commercialization of the Christmas season. The Washington Post reports that "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards' recent racist rant has apparently not dampened the enthusiasm for Festivus, which will be celebrated in U.S. locations including Washington, D.C., New York City, New Orleans, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Oregon.

The Dilemma Hits Home(s)

The Christmas spirit is a wonderful thing, but sometimes it upsets the neighbors, especially when it comes early. In Boston, Dominic Luberto decorated his large, historic home with an estimated 250,000 Christmas lights...in October. "I'm living next to Las Vegas," one neighbor told the Boston Globe, "We're all at a loss for what we can do. But it's not fun."  

Meanwhile, in Denver, a neighborhood dispute erupted last week over Lisa Jensen's display of a Christmas wreath in the shape of a "peace" sign. Her homeowners' association threatened to fine her $25 per day until she took the wreath down, citing complaints from neighbors that the sign was a "symbol of Satan" or a protest against the war in Iraq. Jensen told the Associated Press her display was not political. "Peace is way bigger than not being at war," she said, "This is a spiritual thing."

After hundreds of strangers reportedly offered to pay Jensen's fine, a new report out today said that the association has backed off its threat and is calling the issue "a misunderstanding."

Dear Mr. President...No Christmas Lawsuits

The conservative Christian organization Vision America is circulating a petition requesting that President George W. Bush issue an executive order "prohibiting federal enforcement of any court decisions that seek to remove Christ from Christmas." The group also sells bumper stickers that read, "It's OK to Say Merry Christmas."

What the Stores Are Saying

This Associated Press report checks in with major retailers to see which of them are eschewing "Merry Christmas" in favor of the religiously-benign "Happy Holidays" this year. Such actions anger Christian organizations, including the American Family Association, which is urging its members to send an email petition to Best Buy objecting to its using "Happy Holidays" in store signage and advertisements. The AFA calls the decision an "Anti-Christmas policy."

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart, Kohl's, and Macy's have chosen to use "Merry Christmas" in their holiday marketing materials. Last year's boycott of Wal-Mart had an impact, Linda Blakley, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, told the AP. "We learned a lesson from that. Merry Christmas is now part of the vocabulary here at Wal-Mart," she said.

It Starts....

This year's holiday season is shaping up to be just like any other--the air crisp with winter chill, families preparing for gift-giving, meals, and quality time...and the appearance of that particular brand of the culture war known as the "December Dilemma." Some call it the "War on Christmas," but whatever its name, it's characterized by the enduring question of how December's religious holidays fit into a pluralistic culture.

This blog will, as it did in 2005 and 2004, chronicle the boycotts, the lawsuits, the commentaries, and the neighborhood disputes of the season, searching as always for those glimpses of "holiday spirit" amid the chaos.

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