Out on Interstate 75 near Mount Morris, Michigan, an enormous, red billboard proclaims: "I miss hearing you say ‘Merry Christmas’ – signed Jesus."
It may sound like a simple salutation, but the traditional greeting has become a battle cry with Christians nationwide challenging politically-correct, holiday-neutral retailers, municipalities and even the White House.
If you receive a card from President and Mrs. Obama this season, you will find that nowhere does it mention the word "Christmas."
The card selected by the Obamas announces: "Season’s Greetings." Inside, it reads: "May your family have a joyous holiday season and a new year blessed with hope and happiness."
Congressman Henry Brown, (R-South Carolina), says abandoning "Merry Christmas" at Christmastime is just plain wrong. He has introduced a resolution calling for the protection of the sanctity of Christmas. So far, 44 lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, have co-signed the bill.
Presidents have been sending holiday cards since 1953. The White House told Fox News that the Obamas are celebrating Christmas this year but they recognize that other Americans are celebrating other holidays this time of year and that their holiday card reflects that idea.
In 2008, President George W. Bush’s card made no reference to Christmas. However, it did include a passage from the New Testament, Matthew 5:16. "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said this year’s White House card aims to be "inclusive."
"It makes perfectly good sense for a president of all the people, all the 2,000 different religions and the 20 million non-believers in this country, to send out a card that says this is a good, happy time of year but without referring to any one specific religion," he said. The Obamas’ Christmas card was paid for and distributed by the DNC.
Each year, it seems it can never be too early for liberals to begin their annual war on Christmas. However, this year has seen some early victories for Christians.
"Right outside Washington D.C. in Loudoun County, Virginia, the board of supervisors was considering a proposal to ban all seasonal holiday displays including Christmas trees, manger scenes and menorahs on the grounds of the county courthouse," reports Roberta Combs for Religious Rights Watch..
Hearing of the potential ban, veteran Christian rights attorney John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute wrote to the county supervisors that their proposed ban would only serve to heighten community tensions and "could reflect a hostility toward religion on the part of the Board of Supervisors, as well as an intolerance for the diverse makeup of the residents of Loudoun County."
Furthermore, wrote Whitehead, "The U.S. Constitution and jurisprudence make it possible for the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors to celebrate the diversity within their community by establishing a thriving marketplace of ideas rather than adopting a sanitized, politically correct government message. Indeed, Loudoun County should lead the way in adopting a model protocol for holiday displays that embodies the spirit of the First Amendment."
Whitehead pointed out that anti-Christmas hostility by liberal elected officials has only increased during the past decade and it is time for it to stop.
"Many schools across the country now avoid anything that alludes to the religious celebration of Christmas – such as angels, the baby Jesus, stables and shepherds. In many of the nation’s schools, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, wreaths and candy canes have also been banned as part of the effort to avoid any reference to Christmas, Christ or God. One school even outlawed the colors red and green, saying they were Christmas colors and, thus, illegal.
"This antiseptic, colorless course does not have to be your chosen path," advised Whitehead. "The law clearly falls on the side of allowing holiday displays."
The board of supervisors agreed.
Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio the wrote to Whitehead: "I am pleased to inform you that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors sided with the Constitutional precedent you outlined and voted to continue to allow the displays. Only one Supervisor dissented. Your letter provided a powerful, clear argument in favor of inclusion and freedom of expression. I cannot thank you enough."
There are other positive signs. The trade journal Advertising Age actually declared that the "War on Christmas" is over and that the pro-Christmas crowd has won.
Their article cited the American Family Association’s famous list of retailers who won’t use the word "Christmas" in their advertisements – a list which has shrunk this year.
Randy Sharp, the AFA director of special projects, said that in the past five years the group has seen the percentage of retailers recognizing Christmas in their advertising rise from 20 percent to 80 percent. Only eight retailers are left on the group’s list of "Companies Against Christmas."
This year, the AFA drew special attention to Dick’s Sporting Goods, a national retail chain which boasted an online "Holiday Shop." The AFA sent an Action Alert to its 2.3 million supporters in mid-November urging shoppers to boycott Dick’s this year.
It also called for consumers to email President-Chief Operating Officer Joseph Schmidt and then call Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Hennion. The retailer declined to comment or return phone calls.
However, after the boycott was announced, the retailer did an abrupt about-face.
According to their vice chairman, Bill Columbo, "We have made significant changes from past years, when ‘holiday’ was the dominant theme of our advertising." He apologized for not returning AFA’s phone calls and letters earlier to convey this message.
Dick’s issued a statement to AFA and its pro-Christmas supporters, outlining their plans to incorporate "Christmas" in their advertising:
Sunday newspaper inserts will read "Christmas 2010." This will continue each Sunday through Christmas. Additionally, the firm’s website will display the Christmas message as will the company’s television commercials.
As a result of Dick’s response, AFA canceled the boycott.
"All across America, companies are coming to realize they should include Christ and Christmas in their advertising," writes Combs.
However, eight firms are still on the AFA list – companies refusing to use the word "Christmas": Barnes & Noble book stores, CVS pharmacies, Office Depot business supply stores, Radio Shack electronics stores, Staples business supply stores, SUPERVALU grocery stores and Victoria’s Secret lingerie stores.
But the war is not won. In Colorado, Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden is having to put up with a placard promoting atheism at his fourth annual "politically incorrect" Christmas tree-trimming party.
"It’s certainly not as incorrect as it once was," Alderden said of the event.
A sign by the secular-oriented Colorado Coalition of Reason will be on display along with a menorah next to the Christmas trees and a nativity scene. Marvin Strauss, the group’s leader, wore rubber gloves to shake hands with Alderden last year.
The public event uses no government funds and includes carolers, rides in a horse-drawn carriage, prayer and refreshments – all with an unabashed Christmas theme. It began in 2007 in response to efforts in Fort Collins to avoid religious holiday decorations on public property.
Sheriff Alderden was annoyed, so he raised private funds for his "Politically Incorrect Christmas Tree-Trimming Party."
"Everything is all about political correctness and letting people do their own thing," Alderden said, adding that "everybody objects" when it’s Christian. "Every time you try to inject God, it seems like forces come out against people of faith."
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Eloise Campanella said this year’s tree-trimming event will include the sale of crafts contributed by jail inmates. Donations and proceeds will benefit gifts for low-income children.
An unexpected result of the event is that the City of Fort Collins turned away from its plans to ignore Christmas. This year it will sponsor a display that includes Frosty the Snowman, Santa Clause, a Jewish menorah candelabra and a Nativity scene.
Without a doubt, there is a war on Christmas. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argue that government-funded displays of Christmas imagery and traditions violate the U.S. constitution – specifically the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment by Congress of a national religion.
The battle over whether religious displays should be placed within public schools, courthouses and other government buildings, has been heated in recent years.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings starting with Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984 have permitted religious themes in government-funded Christmas displays.
Since these rulings have been splintered and have left officials uncertain of their limits, many such displays have included secular elements such as reindeer, snowmen and elves along with the religious elements. Other recent court cases have brought up additional issues such as the inclusion of Christmas carols in public school performances, but none of these cases have reached the US Supreme Court.
A controversy regarding these issues arose in 2002, when the New York City public school system banned the display of nativity scenes, but allowed the display of supposedly less overtly religious symbols such as Christmas trees, Hanukkah menorahs, and the Muslim star and crescent. Such a policy angered many, including commentator Bill O’Reilly, who in 2006 said such a policy was "anti-Christian." The school system successfully defended its policy in Skoros v. City of New York.
One of the most prominent Christmas tree controversies came in 2005, when the City of Boston labeled their official decorated tree a "holiday tree," prompting a protest from the Nova Scotian tree farmer who donated the tree that he would rather have put the tree in a wood chipper than have it named a "holiday" tree.
Donnie Hatt, the donor, was also quoted as saying "Ever since I was born, a tree was put up for Christmas, not for holidays, because if you’re going to do that you might as well put a tree up for Easter."
Another controversy occurred in 2005 when the U.S. hardware retailer Lowe’s advertised "holiday trees" in English, but "árboles de Navidad" (Christmas trees) in Spanish. In 2007, Lowe’s started using the term "family tree," sparking protests and an about-face in which Lowe’s claimed the term was the result of a printing mistake.
Lowe’s began using "Christmas tree" prominently in advertising in 2009.
The Michigan Senate had a heated debate in 2005 over whether the decorated tree in front of the Michigan Capitol would continue to be called a holiday tree (as it had been since the early 1990s) or named a Christmas tree. The question was revisited in 2006, when the bipartisan Michigan Capitol Committee voted unanimously to use the term "Christmas tree."
That same year, after threats of a national boycott, Sears (which owns Sears and Kmart) altered their marketing policies from using the term "holiday" to using the term "Christmas." The change of policy included the distribution of "Merry Christmas" signs to stores nationwide, and the changing of all instances of the term "holiday" to "Christmas" on their website and in stores.
Sears also included a "very Merry Christmas" greeting at their website from December 8 through December 26, 2005. Kmart opened the 2006 Christmas season with the slogan "Where Christmas comes together," and several commercials acknowledged Christmas, including one with the tune to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".
In 2005, Wal-Mart was criticized by the Catholic League for avoiding the word "Christmas" in any of their marketing efforts. The company had downplayed the term in much of its advertising. This caused some backlash among the public, prompting some groups to pass around petitions and threaten boycotts.
Wal-Mart announced that they were amending their policy and would be using "Christmas" rather than "holiday". Among the changes, they noted that the former "Holiday Shop" would become the "Christmas Shop," and that there would be a "countin’ down the days to Christmas" feature.
In 2005, Target Corporation was criticized not to using the term "Christmas" in any of in-store, online, or print advertising.
Over 700,000 petition signatures were sent to Target along with pledges to boycott the store. Within a week, Target pledged to begin incorporating the term "Christmas" in their advertising.
"Over the course of the next few weeks, our advertising, marketing and merchandising will become more specific to the holiday that is approaching – referring directly to holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. For example, you will see reference to Christmas in select television commercials, circulars and in-store signage," Target announced in a press release.
In a 2007 interview with Chief Executive magazine, the Chief Executive Officer of Target, Bob Ulrich, stated that using "holiday" instead of "Christmas" had been a mistake.
"Frankly, we screwed up," he said.