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The War on Christmas: When 'Merry Christmas' Isn't Very Merry

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We finally put up our Christmas tree this past weekend -- and that's when all the trouble started. Early Sunday, NPR's Nina Totenberg, in making a point about the federal budget, asked her fellow panelists to "forgive the expression" when she referred to a party she had attended as a "Christmas party," instead of the presumably more inclusive "holiday party." By the time the sun set, her preemptive apology had gone viral online. Fox News picked up the story, and bloggers from the right and left had a field day with Totenberg. As one Huffington Post commenter noted, "The day is called Christmas. It is a federally recognized holiday. So the problem is?" Another called her a "politically correct chucklehead."

But of the hundreds of comments, this one really caught my eye: "Is this, forgive the expression, political correctness gone wild?"

On the face of it, I'd say, you bet. Don't we have more important things to worry about than whether a friend, coworker, or newscaster uses an expression like "Christmas party" or "Merry Christmas"?

Anyway, that's where I left the conversation in my head on Sunday night.

Come Tuesday, I'm checking in for a flight with an actual human when, once we're done, she whispers, "Even though I'm not allowed to say this, 'Merry Christmas.'" I was stunned, not because of her language per se, but because of the subversive and quietly aggressive manner. The guarded delivery, the wink with no actual wink, suggested that we were part of an underground cabal, giving the middle finger to all those who suggest that there's a religious if not exclusionary subtext to such an expression as "Merry Christmas."

Then, this morning, as I'm driving to the gym, I tune into an AM radio station and hear the announcer shout out on-air, clearly defiantly, "Merry Christmas!" before launching into a conversation with his co-host about how the dominant religion in this country is now being infringed upon -- that is, silenced -- by the minority. The co-host, simultaneously displaying both anguish and outrage, replied, "I just don't understand what's the matter with these people. What the ..." stopping herself presumably before saying a different word that would really get her in trouble with the FCC if not these people.

At the gym -- which, by the way, is a state-funded institution -- much to my surprise I found myself adjacent to a conversation about the "holiday tree," not to be confused with a "Christmas tree," because that term apparently had caused quite an uproar in years past. A staff member explained all of this and noted that some of the Jewish members had asked for parity -- the display of a menorah. "But we didn't know where to find one," she sharply noted. No longer just a bystander, I jumped in with this helpful suggestion. "How about Menorah.com," not really knowing whether such a site existed. She replied, "Well, who knows what you'll find there," her tone implying that it might be a porn site. Later, I went online to check Menorah.com, and indeed it exists; it's not a porn site but "the world's largest selection of menorahs."

All of which led me to rethink whether this "Merry Christmas" talk is much ado about nothing. On second thought, I don't think it is: There's now an implicit meaning to the phrase that's chilling. Instead of the warm, embracing greeting that it once was, out of some mouths it's become a loaded term, one of exclusion and division.

Anyway, I'm now desperately trying to finish writing my holiday cards for the year. And I've got three different ones before me. The first says "Best Wishes for Christmas" and I'm sending those to friends and others whom I know celebrate the Nativity. Another proclaims "Peace on Earth" and is embellished with a Star of David, a cross, and a crescent moon (the symbol of the faith of Islam) and those go to my non-Christmas celebrants. Lastly, my personal favorite says "Bah" on the front, followed by "Humbug" inside. Those go to my snarky friends of whatever faith.

Why would I want to send a card to someone and take the risk that it's offensive? One size doesn't fit all -- especially in December.

Steven Petrow writes a nationally syndicated manners column and is the author of the forthcoming book, "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners" (Workman, 2011).

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