Face it, it’s not a ‘Merry Christmas’ for every American

Because I haven’t started my gift shopping yet – wait, I’ll call it what it is. Because I haven’t started Christmas shopping, I haven’t had a chance to see firsthand what stores are calling it.

I’ve been reading about it.

An Associated Press story in Thursday’s Herald included this statement from the American Family Association, a group urging shoppers to boycott Target stores: “When you take away ‘Christmas’ and replace it with a generic term like ‘holiday,’ you take away the very essence of what is being celebrated.”

I’ll tell you what I think. As a Roman Catholic, I’m not a bit offended to see “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” or “Holiday Sale” at Macy’s, Target or Zumiez. At Victoria’s Secret in Everett Mall, the window display says “Give Me Sexy.” That, I don’t know.

I do know that the essence of what’s being celebrated can’t be found in a store, whatever the American Family Association says. If you’re looking for spiritual meaning in line at the cash register, you’ve got thornier issues than which stores to boycott.

Retailers are in a difficult spot. While those who celebrate Christmas, in either religious or secular ways, are in the majority in our country, we’re rich with diversity. Don’t think so? Visit any local school.

“Christmas is a wonderful religious holiday, and people mean well,” said Cheryl Waldbaum, president of Temple Beth Or, a Reform Jewish community in Everett. “But a clerk wishing everyone ‘Merry Christmas’? It’s really not a holiday for everyone.”

Waldbaum, of Mukilteo, said the season wasn’t easy for her three children as they were growing up. “It was hard to be one of maybe two or three (Jewish) children in the whole school,” she said.

It wasn’t hard to find another viewpoint.

Outside Sears at the Everett Mall on Thursday, where a paper sign on the door reads “Merry Christmas,” Salvation Army bell ringer Wesley Schlecht was opening doors and greeting customers.

“People are more generous than I expected, and more friendly,” Schlecht said. The Silver Lake-area man is new to the job this year.

“Christmas should be celebrated for what it is,” he said. “Freedom of religion is not having to say ‘Happy holidays.’ Christmas is a religious holiday, and should be recognized as such.”

At Target, across from the mall, the parking lot was eerily silent for December, with no bell ringers. For the second year, Target Corp. has barred Salvation Army donation kettles.

What strikes me about the debate this year is how many other grave things there are to be concerned about. Between natural disasters, the losses of a contentious war and a possible flu pandemic, it’s an odd time to battle over semantics.

Technically, “happy holidays” is completely accurate in stores. Like it or hate it, the shopping season starts at Halloween and lasts through New Year’s Day.

Despite news coverage of the touchy topic, Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman, leader of Temple Beth Or, believes that “as a society, America is starting to become a lot more sensitive to the variety of faiths and the variety of Christian approaches to Christmas.”

“I see that in schools, stores, business settings and on the street,” Karz-Wagman said. “What’s involved is a balance, trying to be sensitive to people who are not Christians and to people who don’t want religion pushed in their face. It’s a tough one to work out in the details.”

The rabbi sees Jews in the United States becoming more accepted and having great pride in their own traditions. “The December dilemma,” he said, is less difficult than it used to be.

Still, he deplores the use of the government or economic pressure to impose Christianity on others. “That’s where they’re stepping over the line,” Karz-Wagman said.

This believer is baffled by the call of some Christian groups for more Christmas symbols in stores.

Personally, I don’t want to see figures of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the midst of a display for KitchenAid mixers. Do you? The thought has me hearing my father say: “Christmas is too commercial.”

On the way back from the mall Thursday, I picked up our photo greeting cards. This year, the message says: “Peace on Earth.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com.

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