Christmas controversy as American tradition, 2015 edition

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Each holiday season, it seems Americans find themselves immersed in what some commentators describe as a “War on Christmas.” From bans of Christmas trees in some public squares to viral videos decrying “secular” red Starbucks cups, the debate has become a holiday tradition all its own.

Just this month, a Marlborough, New Hampshire, man was told to erase the word “Christmas” from fliers he was handing out to students about the local tree-lighting ceremony.

And at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, administrators decreed that holiday parties should avoid “emphasis on religion or culture.”

“Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise,” officials advised students, according to The Daily Beast, before public outrage led them to apologize and change their minds.

At Cornell University, snowflakes and bows are acceptable decorations for students to use, but not stars, mistletoe or other traditional decorations.  Cornell’s advisory is labeled “Guidelines for Inclusive Seasonal Displays.”

The debate seems to surround split values — pitting those who seek to include all religions in any celebration of the season against those who fear that shifting language (such as calling a fully decorated fir a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree”) devalues Christmas traditions.

During an Iowa rally in late October, Republican presidential contender Donald Trump added his voice to the debate when he pledged: “If I become president, we’re going to be saying Merry Christmas at every store… You can leave happy holidays at the corner.”

Others top even The Donald for bombast over the issue.

“I think in our age of political correctness we become so open-minded, our brains have literally fallen out of our head,” Joshua Feuerstein, a social media personality and Christian evangelist in Arizona, ranted in a video against Starbucks cups that went viral on social media.

On Dec. 11, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives even introduced a resolution to recognize support and protect “the use of these symbols and traditions by those who celebrate Christmas.”

Research by the Public Religion Research Institute showed in 2013 that Americans are pretty evenly split on these issues: even though 90 percent celebrate Christmas, about half say retailers should use “Happy Holidays” as an inclusive salutation. Among white Protestants, 62 percent prefer “Merry Christmas.”

Some have argued that the holiday controversies sprouted out of a Puritanical tradition that frowned on overt Christmas celebrations, while others say the controversy is entirely invented by the religious right and pundits seeking their favor.

“Indeed, the very material excesses against which the Puritans railed in their centuries-long ‘War on Christmas’ are those that today’s crusaders use to quantify their perceived persecution — and employ as weapons against their ostensible aggressors,” journalist Savannah Cox wrote Tuesday on the Salon Website.

Others disagree.

“I don’t think it’s a silly debate,” the Rev. Dr. Paul Sorrentino, an adviser to the Amherst College Multifaith Council and director of spiritual life at the Massachusetts school, said in an interview. “It does relate to how we respect people in the assumptions we make. I find that people always appreciate having their own tradition or lack of tradition recognized and not assumed.”

While many people might not mind well-intentioned holiday greetings, for others, it’s “painful” for people to assume everyone believes the same and follows the same traditions, Sorrentino said.

“I think it is just as fundamentally respecting differences… and trying to find out what’s important to them,” he said. “It doesn’t in any way diminish what’s important to us.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.