Unhappy with `holiday'

Religious groups decry wording as `war on Christmas'

December 02, 2005|By STEPHEN KIEHL AND ABIGAIL TUCKER | STEPHEN KIEHL AND ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTERS

Bob Chance cultivates 7 sweet-smelling acres of trees - Douglas fir, Norway spruce, Colorado blue - and he can rattle off their names with precision. He doesn't care what his customers call them.

"I plant them in the spring, I dig them in the fall, and in the winter I sell them as a symbol," says Chance, owner of a Harford County tree farm. "But I don't micromanage the terminology."

This year, there are plenty of others to do that for him.

In a campaign led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Christian conservatives have come to the defense of the term "Christmas tree" this, um, holiday season.

FOR THE RECORD - The name of Anna Shraga, an English teacher at the Baltimore Resettlement Center, was misspelled in an article yesterday on a controversy involving the term Christmas.
The Sun regrets the errors.

They have lambasted governments that have put "holiday trees" on display and targeted retailers that wish customers "Happy Holidays," threatening them with boycotts and dunning them with phone calls and online petitions.

The groups say Christmas is under attack, and they have amassed an army of more than 1,500 lawyers to defend it.

"We want to make sure that Christmas is safe, but we know that it is not," said Mat Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, a group endorsed by Falwell that offers free legal services to those fighting limits on Christmas displays.

"The renaming of Christmas trees to holiday trees is symbolic of what's happening with Christmas," Staver said. "When people seek to rename what otherwise is a secular symbol simply because of the name `Christmas,' that shows the depths of political correctness run amok."

Last night, city leaders in Boston lighted what until a few days ago had been called a "holiday tree." Under pressure from conservative groups, Mayor Thomas M. Menino changed the evergreen's name to "Christmas tree."

(In Baltimore, the trees inside and outside City Hall are called Christmas trees, said a spokesman for the mayor. And there are no plans to change the name of this weekend's 33rd Annual Mayor's Christmas Parade.)

This week, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, ordered the Capitol Holiday Tree, so called since the 1990s, be renamed the Capitol Christmas Tree.

And Lowe's home improvement stores, which had put up a "Holiday Trees" banner at all its locations, took down the banners this week after getting more than 1,000 phone calls lodging complaints. A spokeswoman said Lowe's has "proudly sold Christmas trees in our stores for decades."

The movement to defend the term Christmas has been led by Falwell and Bill O'Reilly, a Fox News talk-show host. Falwell launched a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign" with a stated goal of preventing religious discrimination. He sent an e-mail to 500,000 supporters asking them to stand up against those who try to squelch use of the term Christmas.

Falwell has said he wants to take back Christmas from "grinches" such as the American Civil Liberties Union. "The fact is," Falwell told ABC News, "we've gone on the offense now. We've put them on the defense. We're kicking their butts and they're unhappy."

O'Reilly has been documenting a so-called "war" on Christmas on his Fox program, pointing out retailers that don't use the word "Christmas" in their ads. He said the war's goal is "to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square."

"The town square is there to reflect the nature of the country," he said on his show, adding that "85 percent of the country is Christian." That claim wasn't right. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 77 percent of Americans are Christian.

In any case, groups such as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State say Christmas is under no threat from them or anyone else.

"Christmas seems to be widely observed in this country," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United. "I don't know if [Falwell] has been to the mall lately, or any number of houses of worship, but it seems to me that Christmas is perfectly safe."

Conn said Falwell is using the Christmas campaign in an effort to restore his public image, which was damaged in 2001 after his comments that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were partly caused by "the abortionists and the feminists and the gays." Conn also said Falwell is trying to get media attention to help his fundraising efforts.

"I hope he gets a lump of coal in his stocking for stirring up all this trouble, because he certainly deserves it," Conn said.

Several stores that have been targeted in the Christmas campaigns say they have never had an anti-Christmas policy. But Wal-Mart got caught in the fray when a seasonal worker sent an e-mail to a customer who had complained that employees were saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

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