Now that Thanksgiving is over it’s time to begin preparing for Christmas in earnest. Unfortunately with the arrival of the season also comes the accompanying lunacy. I refer of course to the annual battle to save Christmas. The decision by many retailers to use the inclusive language of “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas,” has become the latest battleground for conservative Christians’ war on culture.

One group in particular has made the war on Happy Holidays into something of an organized crusade. The American Family Association is a right-wing Christian group that monitors television and movies for sex and profanity. During the holidays they collect catalogs and flyers from department stores around the country looking for lapses in Merry Christmas.

I get this visual image of humorless people sitting in little cubicles poring over thousands of pages of colorful advertisements waiting, just waiting for Merry Christmas not to be there. And when they find it is not there, the battle cry goes out along with a flurry of fund raiser letters. It takes a lot of money to save Christmas.

I guess that’s one way to spend the Christmas season. And I suppose, in a twisted sort of way, it is one path towards finding meaning in the season. But if Christmas is what these folks really care about, I wonder if there might be a better way to look for it. Instead of making a list and checking it twice of all the places where Merry Christmas is not present, suppose we spent some time taking note where it is present.

For instance, our church for years has employed an Advent Wreath to help us worship and celebrate the birth of Jesus. Over four Sundays we recreate the long wait for the Messiah to appear. The four themes of hope, peace, joy and love, combine to give substance to our celebration. We have no difficulty finding Merry Christmas in worship.

There are other ways. One family I know takes a few days every year during Christmas to volunteer at a homeless shelter. The help serve food, they talk to the folks and get to know them. They give small, meaningful gifts. What this exercise has done for their children through the years has been profound.

When this family talks about Christmas, the mall, shopping, long lines and heavy traffic never comes up. They talk about the gratitude of desperate people who have nothing. They talk about kindling hope where hope is gone. They talk about the Word made flesh.

Something is definitely amiss when we find ourselves disappointed that the clerks in department stores don’t say Merry Christmas. Why in the world would we think Jesus would be found there? While it’s true that Jesus shut down a shopping center once because of a lack of prayer, that happened in a worship place where shopping should not have been going on in the first place.

Maybe that’s what’s wrong. We’ve let the mall become our church. That’s why we need store clerks to be our evangelists. Our purchases become our sacrifices, fast food becomes our feasts, and close out sales become our redemption.

That may be reaching, but this much I know for sure–the meaning of Christmas does not depend at all on what department stores say or do. The meaning of Christmas depends entirely on what we say and do.

James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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