Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Christmas is making a comeback...of sorts

Bucking the trend in recent years where Happy Holidays and such replaced 'Merry Christmas', it would seem that Christmas is making a comeback of sorts. =)

‘Christmas’ makes comeback as U.S. retailers recognize religious holiday

By Tim Drake

National Catholic Register (www.ncregister.com/)

LYNNFIELD, Mass. (National Catholic Register) – Christmas shoppers may be hearing something odd this year – clerks and cashiers wishing them a “Merry Christmas.” Mega-retailer Wal-Mart has announced it will be using the word “Christmas” in its marketing efforts this year.

The decision bucks a trend in recent years to avoid saying “Merry Christmas” out of concern that someone in this multicultural society might be offended.

But there may be a counter-trend afoot. Macy’s, Target, Sears, Kohl’s and TJX Companies – which owns T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods, A.J. Wright, and Bob’s Stores – are once again recognizing “Christmas” as part of the “holidays.”

Wal-Mart recently unveiled its plans for “Merry Christmas”-themed advertising this year. In addition to print and television ads using the word “Christmas,” the retailer has also decided to change the name of its Christmas decorating department from “The Holiday Shop” to “The Christmas Shop.” Store signs will count down the days to Christmas, and stores will be playing Christmas carols throughout the season. Employees have also been encouraged to use the phrase “Merry Christmas” with customers.

This comes a year after several Christian organizations, including the Catholic League, called for a boycott of America’s biggest retailer over its “Happy Holidays” campaign and a widely distributed e-mail from a Wal-Mart employee highlighting Christmas’ roots in what he described as “shamanism.” In the end, Wal-Mart apologized for the inflammatory comments made by the employee.

“We learned a lesson last year,” said Steven Restivo, a Wal-Mart spokesman. “We listened to our customers. There’s a call to return to a core ‘Merry Christmas’ message.”

The change in attitude may also be thanks to the inspiration of an 8-year-old girl named Hannah Austin. Last year, when she noticed that many stores weren’t recognizing Christmas, she got 300 classmates at Bishop Kelley Catholic School in LaPeer, Mich., to sign a petition that was sent to big-box stores. Meijer Department Stores and Home Depot changed some of their ads in response.

Not all retailers are embracing the trend, though, and some people are doing something about it.

Massachusetts developer Robert Marley, his brother and a friend were incensed by last year’s efforts to neutralize Christmas. This year, he put his construction business on hold to create the Committee to Save Christmas in Massachusetts – a regional group that is trying to remind retailers of the reason for the season.

“Forty percent of their money is made during the Christmas season,” said Marley. “Corporations are diminishing and disparaging our holiday and traditions because they don’t want to lose five percent of the population as consumers. They can continue that stance, but we will not shop at their stores.”

The Marleys set their sights on Indianapolis-based Simon Malls – a $44 billion corporation that owns or has an interest in 286 properties across the U.S., including 15 in Massachusetts. Marley contacted Simon’s corporate headquarters, as well as the local mall managers.

“Last year, they were all anti-Christmas,” said Marley, a Catholic father of four.

Of the managers he has spoken with, eight have responded; seven positively.

Marley said he also received a telephone call from Simon Malls’ regional representative, Cindy Hall, on Nov. 10.

“She asked us not to do this,” said Marley. “She said we were trying to force them to do something they didn’t want to do.”

“We’re not forcing them to do anything,” said Marley. “We’re just expressing our dissatisfaction.”

“Our goal is to offer a place for all members of the community to experience this special time of year,” said Stewart Stockdale, Simon’s chief marketing officer, in a press statement.

Simon Malls isn’t alone in its secularization of Christmas. Retailers such as Best Buy, Toys “R” Us and Bed, Bath and Beyond are on Marley’s “Scrooge List” for not using “Merry Christmas.”

Nevertheless, Fox News anchor John Gibson believes there’s been a victory against the retail war on Christmas but that there’s a larger battle going on – over Christianity itself.

“I used to call those opposed to Christmas ‘secularists,’ but the shadows have become clearer,” said Gibson, who authored the 2005 book, The War on Christmas. “These are angry atheists. They have had it with believers. They don’t want to talk to them, listen to them or be on the same side as believers.”

“Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union said that Christmas could be celebrated in the homes of Christians and their churches,” said Gibson. “The implication was that it shouldn’t be celebrated in public. If the faithful are interested in this, they ought to look at the wider picture. This is an organized bunch. Heads-up, believers, they are coming after you.”

The battle Gibson describes is best observed through the various lawsuits taking place at the municipal level. The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based public interest law firm, the Thomas More Law Center, says it currently has more than a dozen cases open for possible litigation and expects many more.

“The fight is not over,” said Brian Rooney, spokesman for Thomas More. “It’s going on in every state, county and town in this country.”

The U.S. Supreme Court was expected in late November to decide whether to grant review of the Andrea Skoros v. City of New York case. In that case, a sharply divided panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of New York City to discriminate against Christian symbols while specifically allowing Jewish and Islamic symbols.

New York City school policy allows the display of the menorah during Hanukkah, and the Islamic star and crescent during Ramadan, but specifically excludes Nativity displays during Christmas.

Rooney characterized the case as not only hostile to Christianity, but also unclear with regard to the Establishment Clause.

In upholding the City of Pawtucket, R.I.’s Nativity display, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in 1984, “To forbid the use of this one passive symbol – the crèche – at the very time people are taking note of the season with Christmas hymns and carols in public schools and other public places, and while the Congress and legislature open session with prayers by paid chaplains would be a stilted overreaction contrary to our history and to our holdings.”

“It’s no wonder why you have towns that are afraid to put up Nativity crèches. You shouldn’t have to worry about a threat from the ACLU if that’s what your community decides to have,” said Rooney. “We need the court to make a more objective ruling on what is and is not a violation of the Establishment Clause. Until we do that, this war will continue in every town in America.”

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Tim Drake, based in St. Joseph, Minn., is senior writer for National Catholic Register.

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Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Dec. 3 - 9, 2006, National Catholic Register (www.ncregister.com), a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.

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