Why does Lou Dobbs hate Christmas?
Lou Dobbs holds that Christmas is not a holiday (or perhaps only that it is not a happy holiday). How else can you construe the claim that Macy’s is “excluding” celebrants of Christmas when it greets customers and the public at large with “Happy Holidays”?
[Christine] Romans: Lou, Macy’s is adamant it’s not trying to offend anyone, just the opposite. It’s doing just what other businesses do, retail and otherwise. It’s trying very hard not to exclude anyone. That’s why “Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays” is better.
Dobbs: Well, they’ve just excluded everyone who is celebrating Christmas, which is, after all,
the foundation of the so-called season in which they make most of their profits.
Romans: Moving definitely toward not offending anyone.
Dobbs: You know, when you think about it, “Happy Holidays” — what other holidays are we celebrating right now? We’re celebrating Christmas, right?
Romans: And they say Hanukkah, Kwanzaa —
Romans: — also the end of Ramadan and a host of other holidays between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Dobbs: But as we celebrate each one of those — and each of us in this very diverse society does celebrate — my Jewish friends say to me “Happy Hanukkah,” I say to them “Merry Christmas,” none of us is offended. I don’t understand the reluctance to use Christmas.
Romans: They say “Happy Holidays” covers it all.
Dobbs: They do? Well, they’re wrong. And merry Christmas. Thanks, Christine.
The party line Dobbs is repeating here comes from an outfit in California called the “Committee to Save Merry Christmas”. The Committee, it seems, consists in Manuel Zamorano. Just in case you work for Fox or CNN & haven’t yet been told what to say, here are the Committee’s own words:
The primary goal of the Committee to Save Merry Christmas is to preserve the culture and tradition of the vast majority of Americans that celebrate and honor Christmas. Christmas is a nationally declared federal holiday that has been observed from the inception of our nation (↓).
In the past several years, the term “Merry Christmas” has been deliberately and intentionally excluded from major retailers like Federated Department Stores. The words “Merry Christmas” have been deliberately and intentionally removed from their decorations and advertising. Taking their place are non-celebratory phases like “Seasons Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” When did it become offensive to display or say, “Merry Christmas”?
This intentional and deliberate exclusion of “Merry Christmas” in the Federated Department Stores advertising and decorations is extremely offensive to the culture and tradition of Americans who honor and celebrate Christmas.
Each Christmas season, every kind of decoration, advertising gimmick and sales promotion is hoisted upon the general public by Federated Department Stores directing the public to purchase their merchandise for the Christmas celebration…all the while never mentioning the word, “Christmas.” This deliberate and intentional exclusion of “Merry Christmas” by Federated Department Stores with substitute un-celebratory phases is thoughtless, condescending and hurtful.
Moos: In their rush to avoid offending non-Christians, you will see stores using everything but Christmas.
(on camera): Christmas is the new ‘c’ word.
Unidentified female: OK.
Moos (voice-over): And so was born savemerrychristmas.org.
Unidentified Male: Removing “Merry Christmas” is political correctness gone amuck.
Moos: California resident, Manuel Zamarano, founded the committee to save Merry Christmas and says it has 1,000 members that’s pushing for a boycott of Federated Stores, which owns, among others, Macy’s, “Miracle on 34th Street” Macy’s.
Santa Claus, Miracle on 34th Street: Merry Christmas.
Moos: But that was 1947, this is 2004, when everyone says…
Unidentified female: Happy holidays.
Unidentified Male: Seasons greetings and happy holidays is never a substitute for Merry Christmas, never will be.
Moos: But Federated Stores says, “These reflections of goodwill are more reflective of the multicultural society in which we live today.” After all, this is the age of Christmas and Hanukkah, merging in “Christmaska.” [↓] Greeting cards for Christian-Jewish families that feature reindeer with Menorah antlers and kosher fruitcake.
Kathryn of Infinite Improbability, who notes (and Google/AlltheWeb confirm) that the Committee to Save Christmas has made it into the usual Christian news outlets, talked to Mr. Zamorano. For once this doesn’t seem to be Astroturf (↓): Mr. Zamorano really does find the substitution of ‘Happy Holidays’ (or ‘Season’s Greetings’) for ‘Merry Christmas’ offensive. But alas, even the White House has gone secular, failing to mention the baby Jesus even once.
Taken at its word, his argument is curious. Many Christians find offensive the use of religious holidays as occasions for profit. I would guess that Mr. Zamorano does too. But he isn’t trying to discourage Macys from using Christmas as a hook for sales. Instead the intent is that Macys, when it does so, should address its presumed target audience in that audience’s preferred manner. If you want to make a buck off Christians, call their holiday by its name!
Ironically enough, rhetorical analysis of the sort here applied to ‘Happy Holidays’, according to which the use of a term can be said to exclude certain people in the audience of a text using that term, originated on the Dark Side. In Mythologies (1957), Roland Barthes dissects the language & imagery of colonialism, class difference, and Francité, and shows the role of vocabulary in “naturalizing” distinctions or relations that are not natural at all. Images of white males may be used to represent humans in general, as if the type or norm of humanness were whiteness and maleness. It is not being said that white males are the type. But they are presented as such.
Rhetorically this is more effective: whoever disagrees has first to recognize and make explicit the assumption; only then can it be argued against (& even then, the author can deny that anything of the sort was intended). Generally speaking, the response to such an analysis, when posed as a criticism, has been to substitute more general terms for the term criticized—‘people’ instead of ‘men’.
“Happy Holidays” is a case in point. If Macys used “Merry Christmas” as its generic greeting to customers in the shopping season, it would implicitly be taking the Christian holiday to be the only holiday observed in that period, or the only important holiday, or at least as the type or norm of holidays during that period. But of course Christmas is not typical; it is the unique occasion of the birth of Christ. A Christian should not welcome but oppose its being used generically to denote all the holidays of the season (only one of which is a holy day). But if ‘Christmas’ is not to be used generically, and yet it is used, the implication is that only Christmas, and no other holiday, is worth mentioning. Which is to say that the microcrusade on behalf of “Merry Christmas” has as its aim the exclusion of other religions from notice during the season (↓). This is clear from Mr. Zamorano’s response to Infinite Improbability:
I told him that what the company is hearing is that he’s demanding that they ignore and alienate their Jewish and Muslim customers. His response: “well, they’re going to have to make a choice.”
Mr. Zamorano (and Lou Dobbs with him) holds that using the generic (and logically more inclusive) term ‘holidays’ instead of the specific term ‘Christmas’ is exclusionary (↓). It’s true that if I say “Happy Holidays” I’m not using the word ‘Christmas’.
I’m not using the words ‘Hanukkah’ or ‘Ramadan’ or ‘Saturnalia’ either. To call that ‘exclusionary’ is to miss the point. Or rather it isn’t: to be offended at the use of ‘Happy Holidays’ is indeed to recognize that in using it people want to be tolerant or inclusive—and then to wish that they weren’t.
That said, I also think that to take offense at being wished a Merry Christmas (in good faith, that is, and not as a covert insult or an attempt to proselytize) is overly touchy. (To see why someone might be touchy, read “Being Jewish at Christmas” at Being Jewish in a Gentile World, along with the comment there on the current controversy. ↓) The import of the greeting is: in this season when I celebrate the birth of our Savior, I wish you well. It shouldn’t be controversial to say that Christmas is a time of peace and good will. But in a time when CBS and NBC refuse an ad “with a message of welcome and inclusion”, who knows?
One last point. The author of Jewish in a Gentile World writes:
I confess, I have a certain ambivalence about phrases like “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.” On the one hand, it’s nice to recognize that some people don’t celebrate Christmas. On the other hand, merging all holidays together into one greeting reinforces the myth that all of the winter holidays are the same, that Chanukkah is just Jewish Christmas.
Chanukkah is not Christmas on the wrong day. It commemorates “a struggle for Jews to maintain their distinctiveness in a culture that tried to force us to do things the way everybody else did.”
It may be that some of the anxiety about Christmas is owing to the tendency to mingle tolerance and inclusiveness. Tolerance says: I don’t agree with you but I’m not going to harm you on that account. Inclusiveness, on the other hand, can be realized in the earnest attempt to find common ground or to rationally persuade people that their disagreements rest on unfounded prejudice; or, less happily, in a Mixmaster approach to culture:
a little bit of Christmas, a little bit of Hanukkah, a little bit of Kwanzaa, and presto! a universal holiday—the religious version of Presidents’ Day. But that does not accord with the way many religions view themselves. To be a believing Jew or Christian is to affirm what others deny and vice versa. People of one religion sometimes believe and do things that those of other religions regard as sinful, abominable, unclean, & so forth. Those are differences you can’t split; there is no harmonious whole. Tolerance is possible, but not inclusion.
One reason for confusion on this point is that in other, politically analogous, cases inclusion is not only possible but desirable. To be gay or straight is not to affirm the exclusive propriety of your choice of partners. (More precisely, it is not essential to being gay or straight that you should do so.) Tolerance in this case implies that though you think of gayness or straightness as wrong, you have no intention of punishing anyone for being wrong. That is indeed the only option for someone whose religion teaches that gay sex is morally wrong, and who accepts that teaching. But for anyone not committed to such a view, inclusiveness is morally preferable.
Even more clearcut is racial difference. To tolerate someone of a race other than your own would be to regard them as morally inferior but to refrain from translating that belief into action. If it is reprehensible to regard a person as inferior by virtue of race, then it is also reprehensible to tolerate their being what they are. It is reprehensible even if, practically speaking, tolerant bigots are preferable to intolerant.
Added 25 Dec: Pudentilla has the story of a brave Christian woman who baked a “Happy Birthday Jesus” cake for her son’s first-grade class—and survived!—thanks to timely legal advice from the Rutherford Foundation, which in the face of the impending effacement of Christmas from American life has re-issued its “Twelve Rules of Christmas”. Pudentilla adds:
We marvel at the insistence of the Reds that they be greeted with the phrase “Merry Christmas,” as they engage in mercantile activity which would have been utterly unrecognizable to Baby Jesus (in his human aspect, of course). What they want, it appears, is to compel others to assume that everyone is Christian.
(I should note that the Rutherford Institute, in addition to opposing prohibitions against religious expression in public venues, also opposes the erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act; its position on religious expression seems to be part of a general view about freedom of expression.)
Added 11 Jan: Michael Bérubé has a nice riff on the topic.
(↑) Christmas didn’t become a Federal holiday until 1870. One recent work on Christmas in America is Karal Ann Marling’s Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday. See the review by David L. Chappell at Beliefnet: “American Christmas was secular and commercial from the start—it never had a chance to be commercialized”. See also Kevin Eckstrom, “California Man Launches Campaign to ‘Save Merry Christmas’”, Religion News Service, 16 Dec 2004 (this link may be short-lived).
(↑) Another version of Moos’s report, this time including a quote from Zamorano, is at CNN Student News.
(↑) The portmanteau word most commonly used is not ‘Christmaska’ but ‘Christmukkah’ or ‘Chrismukkah’. The term (with a ‘t’) was used in the title of an episode of The OC, which has given it some currency. According to WordSpy it didn’t originate there; it can be found in newsgroups as early as 1996.
(↑) ‘Astroturf’ in this relatively new sense denotes a phony grass-roots movement or phony grass-roots support, e.g. in letters to the editor. —The more I look at the text, the more it seems to resemble a Scott McLellan press conference reply (see the “message automaton” described in an earlier post). Note the repetition of “deliberate and intentional”, the near-repetition of the last sentence of the second paragraph at the end of the third, the oddity of the construction “non-celebratory phrases” (why exactly is “Happy Holidays” not celebratory? I think Mr. Zamorano neither knows nor cares), and of course that outright falsehood implied in the second sentence. Maybe the solecism “hoist upon” is just a red herring…
(↑) Lou Dobbs’s remarks about ‘Happy Hanukkah’ suggest an alternative. What Macys should do in its seasonal advertising is mention all the holidays. Somehow I don’t think that’s what people like the Revds. Peterson and Robertson have in mind.
(↑) Bill O’Reilly even manages to turn the use of “Happy Holidays” into an attempt to “destroy religion in the public arena”, so as to make way for “a brave new progressive society”, just like Canada (no, not that Canada).
(↑) Needless to say, this is well-trodden ground. How to reconcile differences regarded as essential to the preservation of cultural identity with the political imperative of avoiding sectarian violence was already a chief problem of seventeenth-century political theory. I’ll mention just one work that I think deserves to be better known. It concerns the failure of tolerance in the France of Louis XIV. Élisabeth Labrousse’s La revocation de l’Édit de Nantes is a history of the persecution of the Huguenots in France in the century between the Edict of Nantes, which after decades of bloody civil war mandated tolerance, and its revocation in 1685. The ever-tightening noose of restrictions on Protestant expression, the forlorn attempts of their leaders to conciliate an implacable opposition, the use of state apparatus to harass and eventually to expel them… Sound familiar?