A couple of year ago, I was driving from Georgia to Alabama and passed through Abbeville, a small town on Highway 10, just across the Alabama/Georgia state line. I noticed the Christmas decorations that hung from the power poles read “Holiday Greetings.”

These decorations didn’t look new. I doubt the city council had recently put them up to be politically correct. They were likely the same decorations the city had used for years. But they caught my attention because of the “war on Christmas” we’ve heard so much about in recent years.

These decorations, of course, are completely appropriate. They are up from Thanksgiving until after New Year’s Day. “Holiday Greetings” encompasses the entire season. I wouldn’t have given these banners a second thought had there not been so much made of whether it’s appropriate to say “Merry Christmas” or whether we should whitewash “Christmas” from our vocabulary in an effort to be inoffensive to those of other religions.

The media have fanned this issue into a blaze to have something to debate on their networks. Many evangelical pastors have rallied their Christian supporters around this issue and during a season that’s supposed to be full of Christmas cheer, many Christians are hopping mad, afraid that people are trying to stomp out Christmas.

Years ago, even President Bush was brought into the fray. Although cards had been going out of the White House for over a decade with a “Holiday Greeting” message rather than a “Merry Christmas,” because of the media attention over this issue, President Bush caught heat from Christian conservatives saying he had bowed to liberals and was afraid to stand up for his Christian beliefs.

But is there another side to this issue? Let’s say Joe Lieberman runs for the Presidency in 2016 and wins. Now that’s not likely, but this is America. What kind of card would you expect President Lieberman to send out? Do you think Christians would be offended if he were to send a card that read “Happy Hanukkah”? Do you think such a card would be received with good cheer? Hardly. Unless, of course, you happen to be Jewish. I wonder what kind of cards his constituents in Connecticut receive.

Christians throughout the land would protest that an American President was trying to impose his religious holiday upon them. Would those of other faiths feel the same way should they receive a card from the President with a Christian message? Remember, it’s not like the President is really sending out a personal greeting. Cards are being sent with the Presidential seal and paid for with taxpayers’ money. Herein is the problem. Such a card at least gives the appearance that government is supporting one religion over another, and the First Amendment clearly prohibits that.

As long as Christians are in the majority, we don’t want to see these issues from the perspective of those in the minority. But we need only review our history to be reminded that this country was founded by those seeking religious liberty, people who were once in the minority. Ironically, those who came to these American shores seeking religious liberty did not grant religious liberty to those who settled here.

Strangely enough, there was even a time in the history of our country when it was the Christians who banned the celebration of Christmas. Puritans who immigrated to Massachusetts disliked Christmas because it reminded them of the Church of England and the customs of the old world. Because the date of December 25 wasn’t selected as the date of Christ’s birth until several centuries after the death of Christ, the Puritans didn’t place any trust in the date. The holiday was frowned upon by the Puritans because people of the lower class visited wealthier families and begged, and in some cases demanded food and drink in return for toasts to their host’s health in a practice called “sailing.”  The ban on Christmas existed as law in Massachusetts for 22 years, and the disapproval of Christmas celebrations in the Boston region extended into the mid-1800’s. [1]

It took Baptists like Roger Williams and Obadiah Holmes to stand up for religious freedom, for freedom to disagree with the religion of the majority and even for the freedom of those who chose not to believe in God at all.

America is the most ethnically/religiously diverse nation on the planet. While Christmas Day will always be Christmas Day for Christians, and the real significance of this day for us is found in the manger of Bethlehem, we should seek to understand and respect those whose religious faith differs from our own.

I’m not suggesting that we remove every vestige of the sacred nature of the season for the benefit of those who do not worship as we do; quite the contrary. As individual Christians, we should take every opportunity to emphasize the true meaning of this season: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).We need to extend the message of Christmas among nonbelievers and to those who need to be shown the love of Jesus and who need to understand the spirit of Christmas through our actions and our greetings.

However, where the public must be embraced and the masses welcomed, we should not get too bent out of shape if the official policy of a company or the government is to use the phrase “Happy Holidays.” Besides, a non-believer is just as likely to say “Merry Christmas” as a Christian and not think anything about its meaning. In doing so, saying “Merry Christmas” becomes a nonreligious phrase.

Since when has saying “Merry Christmas” to people changed their lives anyway? Lives are changed by loving people as Jesus commanded. Carrying Christmas to people via the Christ Child changes lives. That love first showed up in the vulnerable package of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes in Bethlehem.

When King Herod found out about the birth of this King, he sought to have the child killed. Yes, the war on Christmas has been going on for quite a long time. Those who tried to stomp it out marred the very first Christmas.

This dragnet of death was designed to get rid of this boy king and kill Christmas. All those efforts failed. Is our faith so shallow that we are afraid that Christmas is in danger because department store workers are told to wish people “Holiday Greeting” instead of a “Merry Christmas”? Since when did we give this sacred season to the retailers anyway? Hmmm. Now that’s a good question.

Christians shouldn’t worry about the efforts of others to kill Christmas if we allow Christ to live within us and through us, if we seek to spread the love of Christ to others, if we do our job and witness about our Lord while respecting the beliefs of others. As long as we worship the baby born in the manger who eventually leads us to the man who bled on the cross for the remission of our sins; as long as we stoop down and peer into the empty tomb and believe that the chains of death could not hold Jesus; as long as we embrace the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and do as that Christmas song entreats us to do, “Go tell it on the mountain!” Christmas will always be alive and the world will always know it. Merry Christmas!

Photo Credit

(This is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Helms’ recent book, “Finding Our Way With the Magi.” Available from thefaithlab.com, Amazon.com, or by emailing Dr. Helms at fbcjefferson.org).

[1]“About the War on Christmas,” Derkeiler.com, http://newsgroups.derkeiler.com/Archive/Alt/alt.politics/2005-12/msg00782.html.