Fri, Dec 24, 2004 - Page 7 News List

No more `Merry Christmas' for politically correct US

DPA , WASHINGTON

'Santa Claus' chats with US Federal Aviation Administration officials as they conduct a safety inspection of his sleigh as Transporation Secretary Norman Mineta, left, attends a ceremony to ensure the sleigh's air worthiness on Wednesday at Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington DC. The FAA officials conducted the inspection prior to Santa Claus' annual Christmas flight.

PHOTO: EPA

Nothing appears to escape debate in US society these days. Whether it's abortion rights, tax cuts, nudity on television or the right to own a gun, every topics fuels controversy.

Now, not even Christmas is above the fray.

Few people complain about having a day off or the economic value of the year-end retail frenzy. But battle lines are increasingly drawn over how to observe the holiday in public settings. Even the proper greeting for the season is in dispute, far beyond the difference between the US "Merry Christmas" and the British-style "Happy Christmas."

When US President George W. Bush, himself a devout Christian, offered a holiday greeting to close out his final press conference this year, he was careful to be religiously neutral.

"I truly wish everybody a happy holidays," Bush said.

The bland "happy holidays" has emerged as the most popular and safest way to greet people in December. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the US, orders its employees to use the phrase to customers.

In the politically correct US, politicians and corporations alike take no chances when it comes to votes or dollars. While "Merry Christmas" might be suitable to Christians, it may not fit well with Jews, Muslims or those of other faiths.

"`Happy holidays' is a pleasant greeting that applies to everyone," Sharon Weber said, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. She added that daily, hundreds of thousands of costumers roll through the company's nationwide stores during the holiday season.

But the debate goes much further than politics or commercialism. In many cases, it stretches to the roots of US society, sometimes ending up in the courts.

For years, public schools, trying to comply with the US Constitution's separation of church and state, have been careful about how their teachers celebrate Christmas with their students, often banning songs or lessons that make explicit references to Christmas, Jesus Christ or even God.

One school chorus in Chicago, for example sang We Wish You a Swinging Holiday instead of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, The New York Times reported.

Another school wouldn't allow students to sing Silent Night.

"It's political correctness run amok," said Lynn Mistretta, who launched www.bringbackchristmas.com with another school mother in Scarborough, Maine.

"I'm not for offending anyone, but we're excluding everyone, and everyone feels rotten about it," she told The New York Times.

Fed up, Christians have begun to fight back, perhaps even bolstered by the conservative Bush's re-election last month. One pastor in Raleigh, North Carolina urged residents to shop only at stores with "Merry Christmas" signs.

Christians have grown annoyed that in some cases "Christmas trees" are being called "community trees," or that some cities have banned Nativity displays from public grounds.

As the two extremes butt heads, others are seeking a reasonable middle ground that allows different groups to celebrate their own traditions without pressuring those holding different beliefs.

"Some people see this as a marvelous opportunity to heat up the culture war," Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, told The New York Times.

"It's an opportunity to trigger deeper emotion and frustration that are not really about Merry Christmas, but about what kind of country we are."

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