37 Days To Go: What’s in a Name?

We’re a little behind on the Trading 8s Christmas Countdown, but maybe we shouldn’t be calling it that at all. Heck, I’m not even sure if a majority of our contributors are Christian!

Nothing rankles Christian Americans like the suggestion that “Merry Christmas!” is an offensive phrase. But the implications are even bigger than that. According to my favorite business school, the word has inserted itself into the wild world of capitalism too:  

It happens every year. One or more religious groups calls for a boycott against retailers that use the term “holiday” instead of “Christmas” in their advertising during — well, that season at the end of the year when many faiths have special days and retailers sell more goods than they do at any other time of year. For 2009, the target is Gap, the San Francisco-based retailer that also owns the Old Navy and Banana Republic clothing chains. The American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss., is urging its followers to boycott those stores because “Gap has refused to use the word Christmas in its television commercials, newspaper ads and in-store promotions, despite tens of thousands of consumer requests to recognize Christmas and in spite of repeated requests from AFA to do the same.”

But retailers should not lose sleep over how to label their marketing at this critical time of year, says Wharton marketing professor Stephen J. Hoch, who also directs the school’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative. “The U.S. is a pluralistic country with many religions, almost all of which have religious events that occur sometime during December,” says Hoch. “The generic term “holiday” clearly is the most inclusive term, even though Christmas is a fairly generic descriptor. Legitimizing a fringe group makes no sense, since as a society we already have been there and done that… . There are plenty of ways for individuals to celebrate their own holiday without imposing their beliefs on others through parochial complaints.” Besides, he adds,”most mass retailers want to appeal to everyone.”

By the way, as advertising columnist Dan Neil points out in today’s Los Angeles Times, Gap does refer to Christmas in much of its advertising this season. “Surf on over to YouTube and watch Gap’s latest 30-second spot, titled “Go Ho Ho,” he suggests. “The spot — which is in heavy rotation on network and cable TV — features a group of insanely athletic dancers leaping and twirling and stomp-cheering around a white log-cabin set. They chant, ‘Go Christmas, go Hanukkah, go Kwanzaa, go solstice… Do whatever you wannukkah and to all a cheery night.”

Other Christmas-vs-holiday battles include the National Park Service reversing its ban on schoolchildren decorating ornaments for the National Christmas Tree with religious imagery; the mayor of Amelia, Ohio, cancelling the annual Christmas Parade because most participants are boycotting its name change to Holiday Parade; and Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear changing the Christmas tree in front of the state capitol building to a Holiday tree, and then changing it back to Christmas after an angry public response. A couple years ago, Pew Research Center found that 42% of Americans prefer “Merry Christmas,” 12% prefer a less religious greeting, and 45% don’t give a rat’s tail. Clearly, if it were a matter of either/or, the Merry Christmas crowd would win; in the instances where it’s been challenged, it seems that they are.

This is largely a philosophical and legal matter, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on either. It helps, however, to remember where the word comes from. The historical archives first document it in 1038 as Christes Maesse, which is Old English for “the Mass of Christ.” To me, that sounds beautiful, almost anachronistic, an antiquated notion of spirituality, fogged and muted by the commercial veneer we’ve painted as Christmas. When we associate it with Santa and trees and parades, how much do we lose of the original meaning? How much of the message of Christ is really present in “ho ho ho,” and how closely does a parade resemble a mass?

Modern Christians portray the separation of church and state as a “secular liberal agenda” (channeling my inner Bill O’Reilly) to destroy religion, but Steven Waldman, author of the outstanding Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religion, reminds us it was James Madison and contemporary Christians who created separation of church and state to protect religion from being corrupted by the government, from being mangled into a worship of power and wealth instead of morality and charity, from losing its message or becoming associated with a lesser message, from becoming an amorphous slave to the whims and flaws of human nature. The moment Christ’s message became negotiable would be the beginning of the end for Christianity as they knew it.

I won’t give any opinion about whether Governor Beshear was right or whether Gap should be ashamed of itself. Those are democratic matters, to be voted on by the citizens of Kentucky and the consumers who lap up the latest discounts, but I will caution Christians who hope to win these battles. Because they are democratic, I’m not sure they’re the battles you should be fighting. I’m not sure the storefront for straight-fit jeans or the chorus of “Jingle Bell Rock” wafting down Amelia’s streets is the best vehicle for your message. I’m afraid of what you lose when you use the same word for the birth of the savior of the world as for a snowman with a corn cob pipe. I wonder how the Christians of Madison’s era, let alone those in 1038, would feel about what we now call “Christmas.”

I know you don’t want to see Christmas fade, and every time someone says “Happy Holidays!” you feel like it’s slipping away. But in your effort to make everyone see that Christmas is part of our cultural heritage, you risk stripping it of what made it Christmas in the first place. In response to a recent Supreme Court debate over a cross on public grounds commemorating the dead, Waldman wrote:

We’ve seen this before. To pass Constitutional muster, the Christmas tree has been deemed an icon of a festive season, rather than something related to Christ’s birth. In Lynch v. Donnelly, the court found that even creches could be considered to have secular purposes.

In other words, the more you want Christian symbols in the public square, the more you have to prove they’re lacking religious meaning.

Personally, I prefer “Merry Christmas!” and I’m glad we named it the “Trading 8s Christmas Countdown” because it’s specific and it stands for something. I was referring to the meaning of Christmas when I started this series, and I think “Christmas” has “holiday” beat when it comes to communicating love, compassion, charity, and peace. Which is why I like that Umberto Eco essay I posted a few days ago: “The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.”

But this is a personal blog, not a place of power or commerce. I don’t believe the meaning of Christmas will lose anything by associating with these posts, and I don’t intend to insult people of other faiths by referring to the religious celebration when I clearly mean the holiday season.

I’m not so much worried about what happens to society when we replace “Christmas” with “holiday.” I’m worried about what happens to religion when we don’t.