Driving recently through a small town, I noticed the Christmas decorations on city streets. The banners hanging from the poles read “Holiday Greetings.”

These banners didn’t appear to be new. They likely have been displayed the town’s main street from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day for many years. I wouldn’t have given them a thought, except that so much is being made of the debate over whether it’s appropriate to say “Merry Christmas” in public or to use more generic and inclusive greetings in order not to offend.

The media have fanned this issue into a blaze. Many evangelical pastors have rallied their Christian supporters around this issue. During a season that’s supposed to be full of Christmas cheer, many Christians are hopping mad and afraid that people are trying to stomp out Christmas.

Even President Bush has been brought into the fray. Although cards from the White House have been going out with a “Holiday Greeting” message and not “Merry Christmas” for more than a decade, this year–because of the attention–the president caught heat from Christian conservatives claiming he had bowed to liberals and is afraid to stand up for his Christian beliefs.

But is there another side to this issue? Let’s say, for example, Joe Lieberman runs for the presidency in 2008 and wins. What kind of card would you expect President Lieberman to send out? Would Christians be offended if he were to send a card that read “Happy Hanukkah?”

How would it be received? Would Christians across the land protest an American president trying to use his office to impose a non-Christian religious holiday upon the public?

Now consider whether people of other faiths might feel the same way on receiving a card from their president with a Christian message? Remember, it isn’t like the president is really sending out a personal greeting. It’s being sent with the presidential seal and is paid for with taxpayer’s money.

Herein lies the problem. Such a card at least gives the appearance that government is supporting one religion over another, and the First Amendment clearly prohibits that.

As long as Christians are in the majority, we tend not to see these issues from the perspective of those in the minority. But we need only review our history to be reminded that this country was founded by people seeking religious liberty, who were once in the minority.

Even those people who came to American shores seeking religious liberty did not always want it for others. It took Baptists like Roger Williams and Obadiah Holmes to stand up for religious freedom: the freedom to disagree with the religion of the majority and even the freedom to choose not to believe in God at all.

America is the most ethnically and religiously diverse nation on the planet. While Christmas Day will always be Christmas Day for Christians–and the real significance of this day for us is found in the manger of Bethlehem–we should seek to understand and respect those whose religious faith differs from our own.

This isn’t to suggest that we ought to remove every vestige of the sacred nature of the season for the benefit of those who do not worship as we do. Quite the contrary, as individual Christians, we should take every opportunity to emphasize the true meaning of this season. We need to extend the message of Christmas among nonbelievers and to those who need to be shown the love of Jesus and come to understand the spirit of Christmas through our actions and our greetings.

However, where the public must be embraced and the masses welcomed, we should not get too bent out of shape if the official policy of a company or the government is to use the phrase “Happy Holidays.” Besides, a non-believer is just as likely to say “Merry Christmas” as a Christian, without even thinking about it being a religious phrase.

Since when has saying “Merry Christmas” to people changed their lives anyway? Lives are changed by loving people as Jesus commanded.  Lives are changed by carrying Christmas to people via the Christ Child.

When King Herod found out about the birth of this King, he sought to have the child killed. Yes, the war on Christmas has been going on for quite a long time. The very first Christmas was marred by those who tried to stomp it out.

A dragnet of death was designed to get rid of this boy king and kill Christmas. All those efforts failed.

Is our faith so shallow that we are afraid that Christmas is in danger because department store workers are told to wish people “Holiday Greetings” instead of a “Merry Christmas?”

Since when did we give this sacred season to the retailers anyway?

Christians shouldn’t worry about the efforts of others to kill Christmas if we allow Christ to live within us and through us; if we seek to spread the love of Christ to others; if we do our job and witness about our Lord while respecting the beliefs of others.

As long as we worship the baby born in the manger, who eventually leads us to the man who bled on the cross for the remission of our sins; as long as we stoop down and peer into the empty tomb and believe that the chains of death could not hold Jesus; as long as we embrace the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and do as that Christmas song entreats us to do–“Go tell it on the mountain!”–Christmas will always be alive, and the world will always know it.

Merry Christmas!

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His column appears in The Moultrie Observer.

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