The Christmas hype seems to start earlier every year, and so does the annual renewal of hostilities in the so-called "War on Christmas." Usually the defense opens fire first, and the honor this year apparently falls to Sarah Palin, who has just published a book dedicated to "Protecting the Heart of Christmas." In turn, Palin has drawn fire from the syndicated columnist Cynthia Tucker. As you'll recall from previous years, self-consciously Christian Republicans take offense when store clerks and other customer-service sorts wish people "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," usually at the instruction of their managers. This policy is blamed on crabby atheists or chauvinists of other faiths who have allegedly taken offense at the sound of "Christ." It seems self-evident, however, that "Happy Holidays" is meant to be inclusive rather than exclusive. This point is lost on those people, presumably including Palin, who interpret the policy as censorship of Christianity. Critics of "Happy Holidays" threaten to become self-fulfilling prophets. While the majority might criticize those who may be so thin-skinned as to take offense at "Merry Christmas," the majority feeling is almost certainly based on an assumption that "Merry Christmas" is a harmless phrase, little more than a way of saying, "Have a Nice Specific Day." But when the Defense of Christmas rushes in to defend specifically a shop clerk's right to proclaim the name of Christ, they imply that the very word "Christmas" is a form of proselytizing, which isn't how most people see it. The more people like Palin make "Merry Christmas" a matter of affirming (or asserting) one's faith, the more people will resist its use in shopping malls, and the Defense of Christmas will be as much to blame for that as any grumpy atheist.
Where does Cynthia Tucker come into this? She rightly recognizes a Christian chauvinist agenda on Palin's part and refutes it with the usual proofs that the U.S. is not a "Christian nation." But then Tucker tries to enlist Palin and all her followers for a war from fifty years ago. It's been almost that long since A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired, and like Charlie Brown and Linus, Tucker rails against the commercialization of Christmas. She actually applauds those "committed Christians" who "struggle to keep sacred the meaning of the season," though Tucker's approved form of resistance is to stay away from shopping malls. Perhaps it's no accident that it's in the malls where reactionary Christians are offended by "Happy Holidays." What Tucker (or Palin) fails to recognize is that it was the commercialization of Christmas -- a phenomenon that has made Christmas a popular shopping season even in non-Christian countries like Japan -- that has rendered "Merry Christmas" harmless. If atheists are to take no offense at "Merry Christmas," it can only be because Christmas has been utterly secularized, so that the greeting might be translated as "Merry Shopping!" In missing this important point Tucker is little better than Palin. After all, what's Linus's answer to the commercialization of Christmas? It's to read from the Gospel of Luke. Yet there will be another commercial break before the kids spruce up Charlie Brown's miserable Christmas tree and sing their hymn. A Charlie Brown Christmas itself is welcomed with little or no fear of its religious message because it has been embedded from the start in the very commercialization it decries. That wonderful jazzy score makes up for all the hypocrisy. Christmas itself -- the day and the word alike -- will give no offense once everyone recognizes that it no longer belongs to the Christians. The real war on Christmas was won long ago, but many Americans, not just on the Christian Right, don't care to admit it.