The "War on Christmas": On Ethnocentrism and Blasphemy

With the start of the Christmas season many American Christians are back to worrying about the so-called "War on Christmas."
As almost all of us know, the "War on Christmas" is the trend among retailers (along with other businesses and the government) to extend the seasonal greeting "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas."

The worry about this trend, among some Christians, is that Christ--the Reason for the Season--is being removed from Christmas and the American consciousness. This is taken to be a sign of the increasing secularization of America and indicative of moral and spiritual decline.

But this is nonsense. Retailers aren't supposed to be Christian evangelists. And neither is the government in a democratic society. Retailers are in the business of selling you stuff. And if you happen to be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan or an Atheist shopping for the new XBox, the retailer, wanting to close the deal, doesn't want to insert, say, RELIGION into the transaction. The retailer wants the purchase to be as pleasant and innocuous as possible so that you keep your eye on your wallet. The retailer isn't wanting to distract you with a theological debate.

Hurts the bottom-line, you see, debating with customers about the Messiah. Hard to get people through the checkout line.

And why are retailers going with "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"? Because of the increasing pluralism of American society. A shift many Christians believe to be reflective of a decline of Christian influence upon American culture, the loss of "the Christian nation" the Founding Fathers had envisioned.

But America never was a "Christian nation." America was founded upon genocide and has chattel slavery enshrined in the Constitution. If anything, that makes our founding document satanic. Slaves built the White House and the US Capital for goodness sake.

What is being "lost" in our nation isn't Christianity but white hegemony. The white majority of America is declining. America is becoming more diverse and pluralistic. And retailers, well attuned to the demographic shifts in their customer base--it is their lifeblood after all--shift to reflect the times. "Happy Holidays" is what you say when a religiously and ethnically diverse population is standing in your checkout line. It's simply good business sense.

(And incidentally, why wouldn't free-market advocates, many of whom are complaining most vociferously about the "War on Christmas," want to keep the hell out of the marketplace? If a business wants to say "Happy Holidays" leave them alone, right?)

In short, the "War on Christmas" panic is fundamentally ethnocentric in nature. Implicitly, the "War on Christmas" is anger at those cultural and ethnic Others who are diluting white power and privilege in American society. "Happy Holidays" is what you say in a diverse society. And that diversity is a threat.

As defined by Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam in their book Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion...
...ethnocentrism is an attitude that divides the world into two opposing camps. From an ethnocentric point of view, groups are either "friend" or they are "foe." Ethnocentrism is a general outlook on social difference; it is prejudice broadly conceived.

We define ethnocentrism to be a way of thinking that partitions the world into in-groups and out-groups--into us and them.
It's no surprise that the "War on Christmas" is seen as a "war." It's a war based upon social, cultural and ethnic difference. And there are two sides to this battle, there are friends and foes. The in-group here is white neo-evangelical Christians. The out-group are those ethnic and cultural Others.

Now, given that I'm writing this as a white Christian male, let me step back and explain how I, theologically, see this issue.

I'm not diagnosing the "War on Christmas" panic as ethnocentric as an exercise in white, liberal guilt. I do see ethnocentrism as the root of the problem and I think we should be tolerant in a pluralistic society. I think "Happy Holidays" is a way to be more hospitable and neighborly in a diverse culture. But tolerance isn't the main reason I'm okay with the shift to "Happy Holidays."

Again, the shift to "Happy Holidays" has mainly been seen in the retail world, as a way to not offend buying customers. Which means, for me at least, I don't really care what you say to me when I buy an Xbox. In fact, theologically speaking, "Happy Holidays" is a lot better than "Merry Christmas."


Well, if you tack "Merry Christmas" onto my Xbox I think that might be blasphemy.

I'm pretty sure it is blasphemy.

It's blasphemous to post "Merry Christmas" all through a shopping mall. It's blasphemous to slap the name of Jesus on all the Xboxs, Playstations, iPhones, and High-Def TVs. "Happy Holidays," while still not great given that I don't like the word "holy" being involved, is much better than "Merry Christmas."

And the association of "Merry Christmas" with the local, state and federal governments is just as problematic. The Nativity set in the town square is just as profane and blasphemous as the "Merry Christmas" on the Xbox.

In short, while I'm very happy to have a more tolerant and liberalized shopping experience during the holiday season (out of simple civic respect I don't want my Muslim or Jewish neighbours to be greeted with "Merry Christmas"), my deeper concern is how the "War on Christmas" panic is inherently blasphemous and idolatrous.

Consequently, contrary to what many Christians appear to believe, I think Christians should encourage stripping "Merry Christmas" from marketplace and nation.

If you want to reclaim "The Reason for the Season" tell the nation and market to STOP saying "Merry Christmas."

Because here's the news flash: The real War on Christmas is saying "Merry Christmas" in America.

Basically, let Babylon--in marketplace and nation--greet you with "Happy Holidays." Let "Merry Christmas" be for the church. That helps clarify things. As Stanley Hauerwas provocatively said, the first task of the church is to make the world the world.

Let Babylon be Babylon.

Let Babylon say "Happy Holidays."

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65 thoughts on “The "War on Christmas": On Ethnocentrism and Blasphemy”

  1. Applause! Also, "Happy Holidays" and "Seasons Greetings" were in common use in Alabama in the 1960's -- not new at all. My mother explained that they covered the whole holiday stretch of Thanksgiving - Christmas 0 New Year's, and were also to be polite to people who were Jewish. What a concept.

  2. "A shift many Christians believe to be reflective of a decline of Christian influence upon American culture, the loss of "the Christian nation" the Founding Fathers had envisioned."

    Perhaps this is a simple or obvious point, but it also seems to be the case that they're pointing at an effect as though it were the cause; "Happy Holidays" is a mark of, not the reason for, a decline of Christian influence on American culture. Even if you say that's a bad thing (which I'm not willing to spot), it's still like blaming your wet feet for the leak in the boat.

  3. A weird post. Starts off liberal then shifts Anabaptist. Sorry for the whiplash. Welcome to Experimental Theology.

  4. It'll preach (in some places!). On a somewhat related note, thought you might be intrigued by this essay from Robert Jensen, a Christian journalist and activist based in Austin:

  5. Well observed, analysed -- and roared. On the one hand, the seasonal battle-cry is a sign of civic and capitalist cultural captivity; on the other hand, the charge of "persecution" reflects a risible and repugnant ressentiment at the loss of social privilege and entitlement. In any case, if the alleged War on Christmas goes the way of the War on Drugs or the War on Terror, the whingers have nothing to worry about.

  6. Retailers aren't supposed to be Christian evangelists.

    Wrong. Christianity should permeate everything.

    And neither is the government in a democratic society.

    We should bring back some form of Christendom.

  7. HA!! I thought the exact same thing (about the whiplash). I was hoping you were going in the direction of calling out the hyper-consumerism as the act of blasphemy. Thus, the whiplash. Thus, why I love this blog.

  8. I also have to point out that the largest minorities in the U.S., blacks and Mexicans, really like Christmas as Christmas.

  9. But too many blacks are into Kwanzaa and the Mexicans are Catholics.They are also all lazy, on welfare and vote for Democrats. So, they aren't real Christians. To say nothing of Jews and Muslims.

    The War on Christmas is a WASP war.

  10. Only problem with this post for me is the invitation to remove my Christianity from the world. It sounds like you are saying, let the world be the world and let the church be the church. I get respecting a diverse culture, but if I apply your words here all year long, I remove my Christian beliefs from all spheres: marketplace, government, etc, etc. Whys is integration blasphemy to you?

  11. It's been Chrisrmas for this long, an know one had an issue with it. Why change it now? Also, if we were talking about anything Muslim, our nation would entirely embrace it.. I'm willing to bet, even change the name of Christmas to better fit their desires. Really we are living in a society that is applad by the most loving thing known to man.. On many different levels than just this one. They don't like that our money says in god we trust. They aren't happy with god being in the pledge of allegiance. Is it just me, or are they much more sensitive to every religion aside from the most loving one out there? Seems to me Christianity is on the right track.. I don't see a problem with wanting to keep Christs name In the title of the holiday.. Mostly because it's been this way for this long, why change it now? Oh yeah.. Because people want money. Ok let's now argue about it then.

  12. As one whose church here in College Station just announced "If you would like to have a 'Merry Christmas' band to wear instead of the politically correct 'Happy Holidays' " I find this timely.

    My personal push back in this regard comes when I see or hear the "Keep Christ in Christmas". I then respond "Sure, if we also keep the Mass in Christmas." Sadly, most at my church (a Church of Christ) do not understand my point.

  13. When I first began ministry in C of C in the early 1960's, we were not supposed to even say the word "Christmas." Traditionally, C of C do not celebrate Christmas in a religious sense (though we have always liked the gifts). So we were supposed to say "Happy Holidays" in greetings from the pulpit and in the church bulletin. Since so many C of C have now married conservative politics, they get their cues from them, and they tell these fundamentalists they are supposed to be upset over the so-called "war on Christmas." Wow! What a reversal!

  14. It's not the integration per se, but the specific things I talk about in the post. The conflation of Christianity with consumerism and nationalism.

    As for our personal Christian witness, embedded as we are in in the world, that's a different sort of thing. You personally can wish anyone you want a "Merry Christmas."

  15. If you slap Christmas onto crass versions of commerce, then you have some basis for criticizing that version of commerce, but if commerce is here and Christ is over there and we keep the two separate because we don't want Christ profaned with it the actual effect of that tends to be to let us do the commerce over here and Christ over there, if at all. The change to Happy Holidays is exactly zero threat to crass commercialism.

    If you want to do the Anabaptist thing seriously you need to withdraw. This post illustrates more generally the liberal corruption of actual Anabaptism.

  16. Right, this is actually about the growing proportion of not particularly religious whites sticking it to religious whites. Blacks and Mexicans like Christmas, and Hindus and such don't care (often they just like the lights and such).

  17. I also think that it's sort of funny that most evangelicals won't actually go to church on Christmas (unless it's on a Sunday). But Catholics and mainline Protestants will go to church on Christmas. No matter what day. So who likes Christmas more?

  18. I agree that the issue here is ethnocentrism and the problem of diversity. But replacing the greeting "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays" only increases the power of nation and marketplace. This results in further homogenization of society. I cannot see how this is not secularization, that is, hiding cultural differences under some 'lowest common denominator'. This lowest common denominator then magically aligns with the interests of the rich and the powerful. I hope that this process will be replaced with real dialogue between cultures.

  19. One could be cynical and say that evangelicals do not really care about Christmas but about culture wars. Perhaps more realistic answer is that evangelicals go to church once per week and others once per year.

  20. Mmm...I didn't think Richard was talking about C&E Christians, though that may have been my misunderstanding. Regardless, lots of Catholics and mainline Protestants go to church once a week AND go to church on Christmas, too. Your "realistic answer" is plenty cynical, too.

  21. Withdraw is the key, but it don't think it's a binary. It's a difference of degree rather than of kind. And there's also a distinction between Anabaptist theology and the Anabaptist denominations. There are evangelicals (e.g., the new monastics) who are more Anabaptist than evangelical.

    The point being, there are many evangelicals who have withdrawn to large extents. Withdrawing themselves from the nation (e.g., they don't vote, they are pacificits) and consumerism/materialism. Lots of Wendell Berry fans among young evangelicals. And while Berry isn't an Anabaptist theologian, his thinking inspires lifestyles that have a lot in common with Anabaptist thought.

  22. I think that's an important point. My response basically goes back to the Hauerwas quote, the need for the church to actually have a distinctive culture and politics in contrast to the nation and market. But so much of contemporary Christian culture has become so conflated with nationalism and consumerism that all you have is a sacralized version of "the American way." That that sacralization is what makes it so toxic. Better to de-sacralize it all, to make that bland, homogenization more and more apparent, hollow, vacuous and insipid. Make Babylon really look like Babylon.

    And positively, getting the world to say "Merry Christmas" in its checkout lines isn't going to get the church to live out its distinctive, resisting, counter-culture.

  23. Does using the name of Jesus to sell a consumer product qualify as the integration of Christianity?

  24. Evangelicals are not liturgical, so this is the historical reason for this phenomenon. Sorry if the answer seemed cynical, I just think that evangelicals generally go to church more often.

  25. Thanks Beau. Catholics get dinged a lot. But devout Catholics are some of the best Christians I know. As far a raw church attendance is concerned, a one-a-week Protestant has nothing on the Catholic who goes to mass everyday and confession once a week.

  26. I love it for that too! Thank you for this, I think it's the best exposition on the incredibly irritating so called 'war on Christmas' that I've ever read. :-)

  27. Wonderful post, and well put. I disagree with you (I'd have to explain that at more length than I have here), but you make all the moves very clearly here.

  28. Interesting and convicting post overall, but I feel like I've missed something in your "blasphemous" point (even after rereading it several times).

    You say, "Well, if you tack 'Merry Christmas' onto my Xbox I think that might be blasphemy...I'm pretty sure it is blasphemy."

    How is this blasphemy? Are you saying that it's blasphemous on the seller's part because they are using our Savior as a marketing ploy? Or, are you saying that it's blasphemous on the buyer's part for idolizing the items because they bear Jesus' name?

    I think both situations are applicable (as both serve as signposts pointing to a broken system). I was just curious as to your thoughts.

  29. christians are not called to be in the world of commerce but in the world of the lord...walk humbly etc..

  30. I wouldn't call this a "WASP war" so much as a white war-- a lot of people propagating this are white Catholics. Think Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, etc. I went to school where quite a few parents worked for Alliance Defending Freedom- a legal aid org that was closely tied to the "War on Christmas" shenanigans. They were heavily Catholic. Anecdotes aren't data, of course, but I wouldn't totally put this on the WASPs.

  31. Could always be Central Baptist; You could be lynched for that anti-christian behavior.

  32. Great post, Richard. Convicting/encouraging.

    I've had a problem with he whole "Reason For The Season" statement and Easter for years as a christian once doing some research into the original celebrations held at those times and how it was really a political move made by the church to adopt those times of celebration. I used to struggle with it, but I believe the Lord led me to some scripture about this: Philippians 1: 15-18.

  33. Christmas is a habit no different from Thanksgiving, New Year or one's birthday. Its only appeal is
    what organized religions have made of it: a religious feast. But even that has been drowned by its transformation into a gaudy commercial/cultural/religious/curious monster of an event. Ultimately, Christmas is NOT a spiritual necessity. Nevertheless, the spirit and truth of genuine worship it hopes to engender remains as a living flame in the pure hearts of those who, undistracted by glamor, galore and garish grandeur, still follow the Lord Who now sits by the Father's side -- risen, reigning and regarding our every step. There will be a time for Him to unwrap our presented life for all to see. Till then: Peace to those of good will! The Good News remains Good and New in spite of the old and
    corrupt ways of many so-called believers.

  34. "They are also all lazy, on welfare and vote for Democrats. So, they aren't real Christians. To say nothing of Jews and Muslims."
    HUH?? REALLY???

    "too many blacks are into Kwanzaa"
    BTW, Kwanzaa is NOT "Black Christmas" it's not a REPLACEMENT for Christmas.. It's simply ANOTHER holiday. The fact that it is a holiday that occurs around the X-Mas/New Years has NOTHING to do wit X-Mas at all.

  35. He did.. ya wanna put that into CONTEXT bfore just randomly quoting Jesus and erroneously applying it to your view of the bible..

    All three synoptic gospels state that hostile questioners tried to trap Jesus into taking an explicit and dangerous stand on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities.

    Jesus first called them hypocrites, and then asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar's tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose name and inscription were on it. They answered, "Caesar's," and he responded: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's".

  36. Given that there IS a "christ", that would be fine. You must be missing the point. So, you say "just leave it alone, because that's the way it's always been"? "God" and the workplace, education and any learning facilities, and anything else that deals with humans of all cultures and belief systems should not come in to play, and should not be crammed down the throats of those of us who just want to be educated, make a living, shop, or do whatever one does on a day-to-day basis. I don't want "god" on my money, or a ritual that my child performs before his class (i.e. "The Pledge of Allegiance"). This implies that all religions believe in "god". And, it implies that EVERYONE believes in deities, good OR evil. It needs to be totally separate. Worship, if you will, and do it in your own style (religion), but keep it out of the mainstream of our lives. Worship, in any form, should be kept separate, and never intersect our education, workplace, etc. It is strictly personal, and it should NOT be forced upon anyone, even if you know you are "right", because, after IS about 'god'! You are not a better person because of your beliefs, nor am I a bad person due to my lack of those beliefs!

  37. Wow, Richard! Thanks for that! I'm not black, Mexican, OR Catholic. I'm 60 years-old, work two jobs, and am not lazy by any stretch! Also, I'm not christian, Jewish or Muslim. Thanks for your intellectual insight! I have a family that I love, pay my taxes and all my bills with no one's help....oh, I'm female (another strike against me in your world, I'm sure!). I'm also an atheist..

  38. Richard, maybe you should have clarified that. There is a lot of ignorance on this site, and sometimes when it's left in the air like that, it looks like what you said....

  39. Good post, thank you for teasing out the complex threads of this issue. This nation was absolutely founded upon genocide and slavery, so we haven't got a moral leg to stand on, any more than any other nation. Yes, we've done some nice things to help the less fortunate in other nations in the last few decades, but we've also done plenty of other awful things, too numerous to mention.

  40. The commercialized Spend-a-thon that merchants have made of Christmas is the real problem. The stress of feeling obligated to buy presents for all our friends and relatives is very difficult for those of us on limited incomes. Sending e-cards is going to have to be enough for me this year.

  41. I'm amazed that "Christians" want to be associated with the commercial embarassment that is the 'Holiday Season' - as I recall, someone objected to moneylenders in the temple. We all know how he'd feel about what happens at 'Christmas'.

  42. I'm not white or American, though, and still am sad to see the loss of that part of tradition, even though it's happening far away in the US. So I think it does people a disservice to claim that wanting to preserve their ethnocentric white power is the sole or even primary reason for their objection; I think a lot of it is about tradition and nostalgia.

  43. I find it amusingly strange that people who, say the wrong thing at the dinner table, buy the wrong gift for their loved ones birthday, pick up the wrong wine at the store, put the toilet paper on the wrong way & order the wrong pizza can assume & expect us to assume they can read the mind of the omnipotent because of a collection of books written by many different writers over a really long period of time by those who were & were not even there.
    So no. I do not know how (btw...his name is Jesus ) your "someone" who objected to the money lenders in the temple would feel about Christmas today. At least people are talking about Christ this time of year & that's more than we can say about the 4th of July.

  44. I have lived many places here in the states. Born and raised in pennsylvania, lived in San Antonio, Texas and Michigan. The religion of my youth and many of the people I know have always recognized Christmas as the birth of our Lord. Don't judge all Americans by retail and corporations.

  45. This message totally disgusts me. To bring in Slavery and to call the Constitution of the United States a satanic document tells me exactly your agenda. This isn't thoughtful. This is bull shit. The whole world was built by slaves you asshole. This country was the only one that fought an interior war, brother against brother, father against his child, to end slavery ... No other country has bled like this country. No other country has reached out to other countries with aid that this country has. Has it made mistakes? Yes. But to spit on it like you do tells me you are an anarchist. You bring nothing to the table except hatred because that is what people who have twisted and evil thoughts and wish to destroy instead of building on the good that is there wish to do. So it is natural that you attack the foundation because of your twisted logic which seeks to destroy and not build.

  46. Annie, I think that IS the point. There actually are Christians that celebrate it for its relevance to the birth of Jesus, quietly, religiously, reverently. And I for one agree, that is as it should be or Christians. The "war of Christmas" hoopla, in which some, in the name of being Christians, are demanding secular media, retailers, even government, as waking some "war on Christmas," is, I agree, blasphemous, idolatrous, and a violation of our nations constitutional foundation of religious freedom. Nothing in the bible supports such an extravagant gaudy 'celebration' of Jesus birth, and nothing in the bible or sound Christian theology or doctrine supports demanding such a celebration be forced upon secular society or others of other religions outside the Christians; own churches and homes. None of this has anything to do with restricting anyone's right to celebrate Christmas, it is about the wrong of trying to force, DEMAND, even secular businesses and governments, to publicly observe it to the satisfaction of some Christians. As a Christian myself, I observe this season in my own way, and that should be everyone's choice. I sometimes decorate modestly, sometimes not at all, especially now my children are grown and gone. And I respect the right of those of other faiths or no religion at all, not to have it forced upon them publicly. To me this 'war on christmas' demands that retailers cater to those insisting on excluding anything not blatantly Christian about this time of year is at odds with how, as a Christian, I feel called to be toward others, all others.

  47. Sharon, from one atheist to another - Richard was clearly satirizing the way other people stereotype the poor and minorities.

  48. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and Mithras
    The origins of Christmas and it's pagan traditions are rooted in Babylon. Removing Christ from Christmas is a good thing because Christ really has nothing to do with anything regarding the winter solstice. It's clear that Yeshua was born during the feast of Tabernacles and that this Holy feast day ordained by God is the only biblical celebration of our Messiaha's birth. To know him we must walk as he did and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that Yeshua certainly didn't celebrate Mithras.

  49. Jesus is not his real name, his mother and his friends didn't call him that. Jesus isn't even a proper translation of his Hebrew/Aramaic name, it's a man made name, and Christendom as we know it today has been modernized and twisted thanks to Catholicism the daughter of Pagantry v(it's mother being the Church of Thyatira, who's false prophetess was Jezebel) so that it would appeal more rapidly to the common day heathen. If you notice the whole world believers and unbelievers alike celebrates Christmas, or the winter solstice, or rather Mithras by doing the same traditions. What fellowship does a believer have with an unbeliever, what communion does light have with darkness?

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