Every holiday season we endure a media conversation about the controversies of Christmas. Do we say Merry Christmas? Is Santa Claus real? It is a Christmas tree or a holiday tree? Is it ok to open presents on Christmas Eve? For a season celebrating peace on earth we sure have managed to find many creative ways to divide us.
Take, for example, the recent controversy surrounding the new publication of a very old story. Pamela McColl, a children’s book publisher, brought to market this year a new version of Clement Moore’s classic poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (or as we Americans have dubbed it, Twas the Night Before Christmas). The book is brilliantly illustrated and clearly would be an instant draw to any child with a love of Santa Claus and Christmas. What sets the book apart is a slight departure in the text. McColl has removed references in the poem to Santa smoking a pipe.
When we received advanced copies of the book last summer I passed it out to a number of mothers on our staff for their opinions. They loved it. The most argumentative pre-press moment came over who would write the book review. We just did not anticipate the uproar the book would cause.
But as McColl began to work the media circuit in promoting the book she was criticized first by newspaper editorials and then on social media for tampering with a Christmas classic. Many experts and Christmas fans alike felt it a moral violation to change a single word of the poem. McColl was taking literary license to a work of art in order to advance an agenda on children, they said.
McColl, you see, is an anti-smoking advocate. As a cancer survivor she feels the marketing of tobacco to children is a problem. Christmas sells the book and the book sells the controversy which in turn advances the agenda. It is not a new strategy in marketing at Christmas.
Nothing stirs up people more than the phrase “Merry Christmas”. Some feel that you should say “Merry Christmas” and nothing else, as if deity declared it so in scripture. One can deviate, even accidentally, and say “Happy Holidays” and cause offense.
Organizations such as the Liberty Counsel and the American Family Association fight this annual battle in the so-called War on Christmas. They publish a naughty list every year of those retailers who refuse to use the word Christmas in their marketing during the holiday season. They encourage boycotting those stores who will not utter the C-word.
Only in America could this happen. Many cling to the phrase “Merry Christmas” because it is traditional and happy and completely unique. It just seems to mean something special to wish someone a
“Merry Christmas”, a holiday sentiment like no other on our calendar.
That is apparently a big problem. On one extreme you have those who do not like “Merry Christmas” because it imposes religion into a seasonal exchange. On the other you have those who like “Merry Christmas” exactly because it is to them a religious declaration.
Little do Americans take note or even care that the phrase “Merry Christmas” is actually British in origin and actually references a drunken Christmas. That is why many in the UK are in the habit of saying “Happy Christmas”. Facts are stubborn things, as John Adams once said, and a real downer in arguing Christmas.
Even Christmas trees have their measure of controversy. On the one side, there are the “real” tree advocates. Nothing smells better, looks better or recycles better than a real Christmas tree. On the other side are artificial Christmas tree fans. Fake trees last longer, are environmentally friendly and are safer within the home. Every year the National Christmas Tree Association (the real tree guys) issue dueling press releases against the American Christmas Tree Association (the artificial tree folks). I am not sure who is winning this argument other than to observe that we have never seen the President flip the lights on the National Artificial Christmas Tree.
Decorating the tree is a source of contention too. Do you use incandescent bulbs or LEDs? Tinsel or not? Do you use the angel or the star? The possibilities for debate on the tree alone are endless.
Everywhere we turn there is a difference of Christmas opinion. Is it ok to listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving? Is it kosher to light a Menorah if you are not Jewish? If you open your Christmas presents on Christmas Eve what is left to do on Christmas morning? Why do stores sell Christmas decorations on Labor Day? What kind of person keeps their Christmas lights up until March? Who invented fruitcake and why?
The pious amongst us sometimes claim to be above the din of seasonal discord. But I would urge caution to those who cling solely to spiritual elements of the season. Were there really three Wisemen or perhaps more? (Yes, historians debate this). Did the animals really talk when they saw Baby Jesus in the manger? (The Pope recently said no). Did the angels really sing? (The scriptures do not say that they did). When it comes to arguments Christmas knows no boundaries.
Perhaps that is why the angel only said “Peace, and to all men goodwill.” He did not want to get in a fight.