It was brought to Mr. Right's attention earlier this week that Nina Totenberg, a National Public Radio reporter, had recently mentioned during a program that she'd attended a Christmas party. What really caught his attention was the way Totenberg mentioned it. Her phrase was "...pardon the expression, a Christmas party."
"Pardon the expression," he muttered repeatedly, as if probing himself for a sore point, "Pardon the expression....And some people don't think there's a war on Christmas!"
Mr. Right does, of course. He believes devoutly in a conspiracy of secular humanists for whom the name of Christ is as offensive, if not as painful, as the sight of a cross is for a vampire, and who've pressured people from broadcasters to department-store employees to replace the sacred syllables with that most offensive euphemism, "Happy Holidays." As he understood it, Totenberg was baldly voicing the same disgust all liberals presumably felt on hearing or, worse, speaking, the name of the Savior.
Merely from hearing his presumably third-hand account of Totenberg, however, I drew a different conclusion.
"Isn't it possible that she's making fun of herself?" I suggested, "That she was satirizing the political correctness everyone associates with NPR for some reason?"
"I'd love to believe that was the case," he answered. From him, that was a conciliatory note.
The "war on Christmas" has been mostly a one-sided affair. I write "mostly" because I've seen some evidence of absurdly overboard secularism, most notably when a bank hung signs for March 17 wishing patrons, "Happy Shamrock Day!" Even then, however, I infer no hostility to Christianity, but a sensitivity, sometimes excessive and mostly speculative in nature, to those few people who can't hear religious words without hearing unwelcome proselytizing as well. I'm not one of those people. I'm an atheist to the extent that I feel fairly certain that there is no being who is both creator of the universe and afterlife judge of its sentient souls, though I admit the virtual impossibility of disproving conclusively the existence of an omnipotent being. But I take no offense when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, no more than when one says, "God bless you" after I sneeze. If someone expresses good will to me I accept it. At the same time, I appreciate the concision and inclusiveness of "Happy Holidays." Not only does it condense, "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year," as Tom Tomorrow pointed out quite nicely in a recent cartoon, but those outside the Christian tradition can infer a Hanukkah or Kwanzaa greeting from it, whether that's meant or not.
Those like Mr. Right who assume that large numbers of secular elitists are offended by the name of Christ mistakenly assume that everyone attributes the same sort of power to the holy name that Mr. Right does. The people who abhor "Happy Holidays" find "Christmas" meaningful in a way most people, including most Christians, do not. They act as if it were some sort of act of power to utter the syllable "Christ," and take it as proof of their belief that some people seem not to want to hear the word. They imply that uttering the name is a duty of faith; whether or not others assume a proselytizing power in the word, they do so assume. The defenders of the word "Christmas" reveal their own motivation when they attribute motives to their supposed opponents. They assume that anyone who insists on "Happy Holidays" interprets "Merry Christmas" as an act of aggression -- and in their defensive insistence on the term, they threaten to make it so.
Again, it's important to remember that the vast majority of people who may casually wish you a Merry Christmas this weekend intend no provocation whatsoever. The war for "Christmas" is waged by a relative handful of blowhards whose persecution anxiety is essential to their sense of identity. It helps their self-esteem to believe that they and their values are always under attack by envious, resentful people. No one should humor them by taking offense when wished a Merry Christmas. Rather, the burden of civility is on them not to take offense when wished any number of Happy Holidays. It's when someone does take offense, not when someone says "Merry Christmas," that friends of civil society, secular and religious alike, should recognize an enemy -- or, to be more civil about it, an asshole.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone.