It took me a long time but I think I have finally figured it out. In the United States, shopping is our religion, department stores are our temples, flyers and newspaper ads are our Scriptures, and sales clerks are our priests.

It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. Why else would Christian activist groups like the American Family Association, along with some others, exert time and energy making sure that retail outlets are saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”?

This whole merry business has become an annual event. And I noticed that this year it actually began a bit earlier than normal. I guess activist groups are like every other retail entity in wanting to start the Christmas selling season as early as possible. Seriously, how many retail venues had Halloween stuff on one aisle and Christmas stuff on another at the same time?

But it’s the religion angle that gets me. See, I have thought for years that it was the business of the church to spread the message and meaning of Christmas. It never occurred to me that businesses also had a responsibility to tell our story.

Endowing store clerks with the ordained responsibility of proclaiming the message of Christmas as they bag our purchases – well, that seems like a lot to ask of them.

Besides all that, what’s wrong with saying “Happy Holidays”? It’s not like Christmas is the only holiday that takes place in November and December. Anyone remember Thanksgiving? And let’s not forget our Jewish neighbors who celebrate Hanukkah in December. Why not let them know that we appreciate their business, not to mention their citizenship in the United States, by saying “Happy Holidays.”

By the way, Christmas is also a holiday. Saying “Happy Holidays” does not exclude Christmas; it just includes everything else.

Maybe that’s what is at work here – too much inclusion. For some of these groups, you get the impression that the United States should have just one religion. And if I’m right about my whole shopping theory, maybe we do.

Maybe what we have been experiencing in church and synagogue and mosque is not really real religion. It’s when we hit the malls with credit cards in hand that our true spiritual nature emerges.

I suppose we should not be too surprised by these developments. The practice of marketing churches and tailoring services to consumer desires has been the norm for many congregations for some time now. Maybe it’s just the next logical progression that we take worship out of church sanctuaries and move it to the nearest shopping center.

This much I know for sure: Forcing retail outlets to say “Merry Christmas” does nothing to advance the meaning of Christmas. As Christians, the significance of the season must take place in actual places of worship and at home with our families.

It is when we open our actual Scriptures and read the story with our children that we are able embrace the belief that God has acted in great grace and love in sending Jesus into the world. That’s when the true meaning of Christmas comes alive.

Having “Merry Christmas” plastered on a newspaper ad or on a banner in a department store adds nothing to the meaning of the season. In fact, it may actually detract from meaning.

Confusing the meaning of Christmas as revealed in the Bible with the meaning of Christmas as displayed at the shopping mall is to seriously miss the point.

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

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