Stores revert to `Merry Christmas'

Wal-Mart leads way, backing off from `happy holidays'

November 24, 2006|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

Christmas is back at Wal-Mart - not that it really ever left.

After testing out a generic, yet all-inclusive, "happy holidays" theme last year, the nation's largest retailer announced this month that Christmas will dominate its seasonal marketing in the U.S.

"We've learned our lesson," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Marisa Bluestone. "This year, we're not afraid to say, `Merry Christmas.'"

Neither are Walgreens, Target, Macy's, Kmart and Kohl's, among others. In interviews this week, spokesmen from those major retailers said that their stores acknowledge the Christmas holiday, hoping to avoid a repeat of last year's backlash led by conservative Christian groups.

Such groups often criticize the commercialization of Christmas. But in 2005, they instead railed about its dearth, taking Wal-Mart, Best Buy and others to task for not mentioning the day in their holiday advertising - dubbing it "anti-Christian and anti-Christmas bias."

Petitions were passed around, boycotts were threatened and the existence of a "secular progressive agenda" was suggested by Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, who complained that the political correctness police had religion on the run.

This year, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which called for a Wal-Mart boycott last year, is already on the lookout for "Christmas killjoys," asking people to turn in organizations and individuals that don't acknowledge the holiday.

Among those on the list thus far are an Associated Press headline writer who referred to "holiday trees" and a school system in New Jersey that won't display a nativity scene.

The Committee to Save Merry Christmas has posted form letters online that consumers can send to stores, asking for Christmas mentions. And the American Family Association, which said it amassed 700,000 signatures on a petition to stop the so-called Christmas ban last year, now suggests Christian shoppers wear buttons reading "Merry Christmas ... It's worth saying" with the "Christ" in "Christmas" highlighted in red.

"[It's] a reaction to the politically correct homogenization of things," said Erik Gordon, an assistant marketing professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "To people who grew up with Christmas and love Christmas, to them, it's not a generic `happy holiday,' it's `merry Christmas.'"

But the same goes for people who grew up celebrating Hanukkah and those who also embrace Kwanzaa. During the past decade or so, retailers have switched to the more efficient "happy holidays" in part to extend the same advertising campaign from Thanksgiving through New Year's. But it also was an effort to include everyone, or at least to exclude no one.

For the most part, it went unnoticed - until Wal-Mart got into the act, said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.

"Last year was the year it got attention because there were big retailers involved ... and the media picked up on it," said Grannis, who added that businesses were caught off guard by the backlash and have rushed to compensate this year.

"Clearly, retailers have learned that they can still be inclusive of all religions while wishing their customers a `merry Christmas,'" she said.

Target and Kohl's were among those criticized last year, even though both stores say they have included the word Christmas in their ads for years and will again during 2006. Walgreens made a special effort this year, however, after the AFA complained in 2005.

"In the past, our ad copy used wording from vendors' descriptions, and that tended to use the word `holiday,'" Walgreens spokeswoman Carol Hively said in an e-mail. "This year, to be more accurate, we describe Christmas-specific items, such as Christmas trees, with the word `Christmas.'"

Best Buy, however, is an unapologetically "happy holidays" kind of place, which has earned it a spot on the Catholic League's watch list.

"We feel that all of the holidays are important, and that's why we try to be as inclusive as possible with our commercials and advertising," said spokesman Brian Lucas. "We just feel like we want to adopt the most respectful position that we can."

Some said Wal-Mart might actually be asking for trouble with its new policy. Employees were encouraged to mix it up this year and toss out a "Happy Hanukkah" and "Kwanzaa" among their "Season's Greetings," or maybe even a "Feliz Navidad" if the mood strikes.

Wal-Mart workers are supposed to "use their best judgment" to figure out what's appropriate for whom, spokeswoman Bluestone said.

"How can they tell? They're going to look at people and [guess]?" asked Amna Kirmani, a professor of marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

At the Wal-Mart on Port Covington Drive this week, aisles were stocked with Christmas items and their generic, wintry counterparts - such as decorative snowmen and sleds - but nary a menorah to be found. A manager said the store doesn't stock many Hanukkah items, and what it had this year was already purchased.

Outside in the parking lot, Runnette Hicks of Brooklyn was confused by the whole matter.

"In my opinion, `happy holidays' and `merry Christmas' is the same thing. They're just wishing you greetings," said Hicks, who does her Christmas shopping based on value, not phrases.

Still, Wal-Mart's about-face nabbed it some quick publicity this month, as news media covered the policy announcement and freely aired the company's Christmas commercial.

"I have no doubt in my mind that everything that Wal-Mart does is [statistically based]," said Lynn Bartholome, a New York college professor and past president of the Popular Culture Association. "They're going to do whatever they have to do to make money."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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