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HETRICK: Let's have a little holiday faith ... in one another

December 12, 2009

Tis the season, I hear. While there aren’t, in these parts, many sleigh bells jingling, our city sidewalks are, indeed, dressed in holiday style.

We’ve also had the first dusting of snow and the first cursing of snow removal—a rite of seasonal passage as reliable as the winter solstice.

Our newspapers are fat (for a change) with retailers’ ads and circulars. Mall parking lots are filled. And above all this bustle, we hear Salvation Army bells seeking help for people in need and spreading the good news that another angel has gotten her wings.

But not all is jolly in our winter paradise.

Millions are unemployed. There’s conflict over climate change in Copenhagen. There’s hellfire over health reform in the U.S. Senate. And instead of singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” we’re agonizing over increasing troop allotments in Afghanistan.

With our holiday plates thus filled by conflicting emotions of seasonal joy and serious-issue anxiety, one might hope that we could accept a simple seasonal greeting for its thoughtful intent.

Alas, even in merry-making, a sorry few find cause to be militant.

A few weeks ago, some staff members at a national women’s organization headquartered here in Indianapolis decided to send a merry message to their members.

They created an electronic greeting card. It featured an illustration of a snowman. Under the headline “Happy Holidays,” it said, “Wishing you a carefree holiday season filled with fun, family and friends!”

They sent it out to tens of thousands of women.

But a few weren’t happy. They were offended or disappointed at the use of the term “holiday” rather than saying “Merry Christmas.” They felt the organization had succumbed to political correctness.

“Take the time to wish me Merry Christmas,” said one, “and the time to wish my Jewish sisters Happy Hanukkah, and sisters of other faiths Happy whatever. Don’t be so lazy and so politically correct to just use the word ‘holiday.’

“I’d rather you not send anything than to send what you did—it is worse than meaningless, it was offensive.”

On its Web site, the organization replied and asked other members to weigh in.

“Our intention was not to offend, or even to be politically correct,” said the headquarters staff. “Our intention was to be inclusive and sisterly and send holiday wishes to each member regardless of which holidays she chooses to celebrate, whether it’s one of religious significance or simply the new year.” The headquarters post also said that the organization doesn’t even collect information about religious preference.

On the organization’s Web site and Facebook page, more than 100 members shared their views, the vast majority grateful for an inclusive, non-sectarian greeting.

“I send my kids to a private Christian school,” said one. “I will always have a Christmas card that says ‘Merry Christmas’ and it will always feature a cross, manger, star, wise man, shepherd or similar motif. I am a card-carrying, marked-up-Bible-owning member of the Christian faith and the Presbyterian Church, living in the South.

“All of this said, I am pleased that [our organization] sent a greeting out to our larger membership body. I am not offended at all. I hope the members who are of other beliefs receive the greeting with the spirit in which it was sent.”

Others still weren’t satisfied. “Being wished a ‘Merry Christmas’ should not offend anyone,” said one member. “It is illogical to resent being wished well regardless of religion. If someone wants to wish you ‘Happy Hanukkah,’ ‘Happy Kwanzaa’ or ‘Happy Ramadan,’ you should be appreciative of the good wishes being sent your way. Good manners dictate that you simply reply ‘thank you’ regardless of your beliefs. To do otherwise diminishes all religions.

“However, lumping Christmas together with other holidays actually is offensive because it diminishes the significance of Christ’s birth and reduces it to something generic and ordinary.”

Writing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, columnist Connie Schultz said, “Focus on the Family is calling for Christians to rate the ‘Christmas-friendliness’ of retailers. The target is stores that substitute the word ‘holiday’ for ‘Christmas’ in their signs, advertising and in-person greetings.”

Schultz’s Plain Dealer colleague, Regina Brett, added that “efforts to respect other faiths” amounted to a “war on Christmas.”

Really?

As a nation, we’ve long wrangled with the blessings and curses of “American exceptionalism”—the idea that the U.S. of A. is superior to other countries. As patriots, we may well believe that, but flaunting it smacks of arrogance and triggers resentment.

The same might be said of “Christian exceptionalism.” Yes, we live in a nation where three-fourths of the population shares that faith. But even upon the celebration of His birth, the answer to “What would Jesus do?” will always be more tolerance and acceptance than lambasting our fellow travelers for wishing us “Happy Holidays.”•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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