In my neighborhood, the war on Christmas began on Halloween. The precipitating incident was the use of the neighborhood e-mail list to discuss calling a proposed December get-together a “holiday party” instead of a “Christmas party.”

To you or me this might seem a matter of little concern (especially if you or I have trick-or-treaters to chaperone). The non-Christians in the neighborhood might consider it a friendly gesture, if they consider it at all. But one brave culture-warrior could see the suggestion of inclusive language for what it really was: an attack on the American way. He hit reply-all to give us a piece of his mind. “SHAME!!!” was his gentle salutation.

I don’t know the neighbor who felt so strongly about what someone else’s wassail should be called. But I regard his e-mail as a masterpiece of the Keep-Christ-in-Christmas complaint tradition. “Will you tell your children that you will have a Holiday tree instead of a Christmas tree?” he asked. “Will you take them to Holiday services or Holiday Mass instead of Christmas services or Mass?” Well, no, I hadn’t planned to. Then came the obligatory feint at inclusiveness, in an attempt to characterize his complaint as something other than special pleading: “Will some take their children to Holiday services instead of Hanukkah services?” he asked. “Will they have a Holiday dinner instead of a Seder dinner?”

It’s true, nobody expects those unspecified “some” to change the names of the things “they” do. And no one where I live is asking Christians to hedge about their Christmas trees either, much less rename Mass. In fact, answering all those questions honestly might lead one to conclude that having a neighborhood-wide “holiday party” is, in an important sense, the opposite of forcing people to compromise their beliefs. But this guy was on a righteous roll. “Inclusion does not mean giving up our traditions and core beliefs,” he argued. “It means respecting those of all groups without offense.” And therefore, all the “theys” within earshot would just have to respect that when this neighborhood has a mixer in December, it’s a Christmas party. Never mind that we’ve never had such a gathering before. (Can’t imagine why!)

Speaking of masterpieces: that friendly fellow is likely to find Sarah Palin’s new book Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas under his holiday tree. In it, according to the publisher, Palin “calls for bringing back the freedom to express the Christian values of the season...and laments the over-commercialization and homogenization of Christmas in today’s society.”

Only Sarah Palin (or her ghostwriter) could lament the commercialization of Christmas in a book published just in time for the holiday shopping season. But to be fair, from what I can make out, it’s not the shopping as such that Palin minds; it is the possibility that some might be buying and selling without the name of Jesus on their lips.

I am all for keeping Christ in Christmas. For me, though, the real struggle is keeping Christmas out of Advent, something that won’t be helped by snapping at every retail clerk who says “Happy Holidays!” between now and New Year’s. “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season,” the pious used to remind each other—a gentler slogan, more centering mantra than reprimand. Now the Knights of Columbus distribute “Keep Christ in Christmas” car decals that have a confrontational air: Keep Christ in Christmas or else.

Sitting in traffic, staring at one of these chilly reminders, I wonder: Or else what? Let’s let Palin explain what’s at stake: “The war on Christmas is the tip of the spear in a larger battle to secularize our culture, and make true religious freedom a thing of America’s past.” Unless Christians insist on the de-facto establishment of Christianity in public life, “true” religious freedom will be imperiled. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in this formulation, “true” means “Christian,” and “religious freedom” means “cultural dominance.”

It’s no secret that culture-warriors such as Palin—she of the campaign-trail preference for “real America”—have turned divisiveness into a profitable industry. All the more reason, then, to be concerned about the “heart of Christmas.” Peace on earth and goodwill toward men (not to mention the rest of us) can’t thrive among Christians worried about “protecting” their privileges. Publicly dressing down a neighbor who invites you into her home because you don’t like the words she uses is a pretty good sign that Christ is absent in more than name. The good news, for my neighbors and me, is that we have many weeks left to find the heart of Christmas. If that doesn’t work out, I’d settle for nonspecific holiday cheer—and a reply-all cease-fire.

Published in the December 6, 2013 issue: View Contents

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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