Paul Holmes

Let's all move beyond the 'Happy Holidays' debate and instead relish our varied beliefs

Let's all move beyond the 'Happy Holidays' debate and instead relish our varied beliefs

One of the most extraordinary PR campaigns I've ever seen is in full swing as we near the holidays. If you found that sentence offensive, you probably already know the campaign I refer to.

Championed by right-wing commentators like Bill O'Reilly, there is a backlash under way against those companies that use the term "the holidays" as a way to include those who celebrate other religious occasions, such as Hanukkah, as well as those who just appreciate a few days off without feeling the need to acknowledge any debt of gratitude to the supernatural.

According to John Gibson Sentinel, author of The War on Christmas, the war is being waged by a "cabal of secularists, so-called humanists, trial lawyers, cultural relativists, and liberal, guilt-racked Christians." If such a cabal existed, I'd love to have been invited to its meetings. But, of course, it does not, except in the author's head. If Christmas is under attack, it seems to be standing up pretty well under the assault, if my recent forays into midtown Manhattan are any indication.

In any event, this enthusiasm for Christmas on the part of evangelical Christians represents an interesting reversal. More than 350 years ago, Puritans in England banned Christmas by act of Parliament as part of their rejection of Catholicism. Businesses were ordered to stay open, and traditional Christmas fare such as plum pudding was denounced. Christmas was outlawed in protestant Massachusetts until the second half of the 19th century.

But O'Reilly has taken aim at a number of major retailers he sees as collaborators in this war. Target, for example, has been criticized for refusing to allow Salvation Army solicitors to sit in front of its stores, although its policy doesn't single out any one group, and Target donates significant funds to charitable causes each year. Federated Department Stores, parent of Macy's, has been attacked for advising staff to greet people with "Seasons Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas," although the company leaves the wording of any greeting to individual store managers.

Oh, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was criticized for referring to the city's "holiday tree." Bloomberg, it should be noted, is Jewish.

The fact that Bloomberg, like millions of other Americans, is not a Christian is at the heart of the difference between "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays." The first assumes that your entire audience is homogenous, united under a single belief system. The other allows for the possibility that your audience includes diverse beliefs and faiths.
It takes a peculiar - perhaps pathological - self-absorption to believe that by failing to exclude non-Christians, retailers and others are engaged in a war on Christianity.

Paul Holmes has spent the past 18 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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