Now that Thanksgiving Day has passed, we face the single most commercialized event in our culture, even more than the Super Bowl. Christmas time is upon us. And when I say commercial, it is serious business. Many stores will see 20 to 30 percent of their annual sales take place in the next 30 days.

With the competition for Christmas dollars fierce, retailers cannot afford to overlook a single customer. That’s why a good many stores have decided to swap the traditional “Merry Christmas” for a more generic “Happy Holidays.” The reason why is obvious. While there is certainly a Christian majority out there in the mall, it is by no means a Christian monopoly. Like it or not, ours is a multi-cultural society and there are lots of dollars to be gleaned from folks of other faiths, and even from those with no faith.  Happy Holidays is an effort to reach everyone.

Of course, not everyone is happy about Happy Holidays. Christian activist groups such as Focus on the Family and Reclaiming America, and my personal favorite, the Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign led by Jerry Falwell, are making a big deal out of the decision to use Happy Holidays.

These groups have launched a massive effort to “save Christmas.” They are sending out thousands of letters and e-mails accusing retailers of “taking Christ out of Christmas.” They are variously promoting boycotts and petition drives and raising money all in an effort to force retailers to acknowledge Christ as the center of the holiday.

How far has the phenomenon spread? According to the American Family Association, another Christian based activist group, Happy Holidays are everywhere. After surveying 11 retail outlets, the Association found that 10 retail establishments were promoting Happy Holidays in their advertising. Only one store used the word Christmas, and they only used it twice. Hardly a sincere effort.

What does all this mean? If Christ is not on the banners and sale boards at various department stores, Christmas is lost? Does keeping Christ in Christmas mean that we must make sure he is on display right there next to Santa and his eight tiny reindeer?

What I want to know is when did it become the responsibility of department stores to preach the gospel? It is not the purpose of retail establishments to advance the cause of Christ. I do not recall Jesus ever saying, “Why haven’t you turned my marketplace into a house of prayer?” If Christ is missing from Christmas, don’t blame department stores, the real reason is somewhere closer to home.

What’s really missing from Christmas is any semblance of Christian teaching. Instead of bullying stores into saying Merry Christmas, why not bemoan how grotesquely commercial Christmas has become? We’ve made it all about buying stuff. Jesus was not into that. Jesus was into service and compassion and mercy. In fact, Jesus said one time that if we ever needed to find him we should look among the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, the poor and the dispossessed.

No wonder Christ seems to be missing from Christmas—Christians keep looking for him in the mall.

And for all those activist groups out there stirring up the faithful, spewing venom and spreading fear, well that’s just one more seasonal sell job. You see, department stores and activist faith groups have this in common—they are always looking for ways to separate well-meaning Christians from their hard-earned money at Christmas time.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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