Conservatives campaign for religious meaning of Christmas

Christians see attack in form of secularists' bland `happy holidays'

December 19, 2004|By Ellen Barry | Ellen Barry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RALEIGH, N.C. - This year, as Christmas season swung into gear, Pastor Patrick Wooden's followers fanned out to shopping malls across Raleigh to deliver a muscular message of holiday cheer: As Christian shoppers, they would like to be greeted with the phrase "Merry Christmas" - not a bland "Happy Holidays" - and stores that failed to do so would risk losing their business.

Nearly six weeks later, some citizens in Raleigh are seething over what they see as an attempt to force religion into the public square. But others say that "Merry Christmas" is rolling off their tongues more easily and more often than in previous years. Emboldened by their victories in November's elections, conservative Christians nationwide have converged around the topic of Christmas, contending that secularists and nonbelievers have tried to obliterate the holiday's religious meaning.

In Oklahoma and Florida, skirmishes have erupted over the display of Nativity scenes on government property; a California man has called for a boycott of Macy's and Bloomingdale's department stores, demanding that the phrase "Merry Christmas" be used; in Denver, the mayor's attempt to remove "Merry Christmas" from a light display raised such a howl of protest that he reversed his decision.

In Raleigh, the grass-roots campaigning has focused on retailers. And it has been so invigorating that the church is making plans for next year, said Wooden, a barrel-chested former football player who leads a conservative black congregation of about 3,000.

"Our position is, if they want the gold, frankincense and myrrh, they should acknowledge the birth of the child," said Wooden, pastor of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ. Conservative Americans feel ready to push back against what they deem "the secularists or the humanists or the elitists" who dominate popular culture, said the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, which is based in Raleigh.

"It's a cultural war. We are in the thick of it," Creech said. "It's not so much an attack on us. It's an attack on Christ."

Throughout history, religious people have fretted over the holiday's secular aspects, said Penne Restad, a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Christmas in America: A History.

Created by the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth century, the celebration of the Nativity coincided with pro-Christian feasts, allowing observant Christians to "then go out the door and participate in Saturnalia," Restad said. In pre-colonial days, English authorities looked on the holiday as a riot of drunkenness and hooliganism. American Puritans rejected it completely, preferring to get up and go to work.

Not until the 1820s and 1830s, with the holiday "getting rowdier and rowdier and more destructive," did Americans redefine it as a safe and private family time, Restad said - the stereotypical old-fashioned Christmas celebrated in carols and Currier & Ives prints. Karal Ann Marling, author of Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday, called complaints about secularization "complete and utter bunk."

"If you think Christmas meant the baby Jesus in the past, it didn't," said Marling, a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota. Still, the past 20 years have seen a corporate trend toward generic holiday celebrations - brought about not through the law, as private businesses are free to decorate as they like, but by a desire not to offend, a retail expert said.

At Cary Towne Center, a mall just outside Raleigh, displays featured azure and white artificial trees and huge suspended ornaments. Heather Vandeusen, manager at The Body Shop, which sells skin-care products, said off-site managers train her staff to say "Happy Holidays."

"If my corporate allowed it, I wouldn't have a problem with it," said Vandeusen, 20. "I still say, `Merry Christmas,' personally."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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