‘tis the Season

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If the forecast is correct, there may be snow on the ground by the time you read this. Still, even if the dullish green grass and crumpled brown leaves remain, there’s no denying we’ve entered that special time of the year – the Christmas Season.

There. I said it. I said “Christmas” instead of “Xmas,” instead of “Holiday,” instead of “Winter.” instead of “Xmas.” I don’t say “Christmas” to ignore practicing Jews, who celebrate Hanukkah beginning on the Hebrew calendar date of 25 Kislev (which falls on Tuesday, December 12th this year) and lasts for 8 days (December 20th this year). I say “Merry Christmas” because that’s what my family celebrates (and has celebrated for generations). If my family had celebrated Hanukkah instead, I would be wishing everyone a “Happy Hanukkah” rather than a “Merry Christmas.”

Well, maybe I’d still say “Merry Christmas.”

Why? Because, despite efforts by Christian groups to deny this and by anti-religious groups to purge this, “Christmas” in the United States long ago evolved from a purely religious celebration into a secular holiday. Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the perennially popular Charlie Brown Christmas to discover the commercialization of Christmas (“Look, Charlie, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”) dates back to at least 1965.

It probably goes back much further. If we’re going to cite classic cultural literature as a reference point, then we’d have to consider Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (published in 1843) and Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas (published in 1823). Neither of these works focus on the religious aspect, but contain elements commonly associated with the spirit and joy of Christmas.

Clearly, notwithstanding the recent vintage of Lucy Van Pelt’s statement to Charlie Brown, the secularization of Christmas began in both England and America no later than roughly 200 years ago. In the twentieth century, we often point to the Macy’s Day Parade as the official “commercialization” of Christmas. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade marched in New York City for the first time in 1924. That was four years after arch-rival Gimbels started its Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia. Ellis Gimbel, truth be told, merely copied the Shipper and Block Department Store Santa Claus Parade in Peoria, Illinois which began in 1887.

Christmas, shopping, commercialization and secularization have been intertwined since before our grandparents’ day. It’s so ingrained in our culture more than nine-in-ten (92% according to a 2013 Pew Research Survey) Americans, regardless of creed, celebrate Christmas. This includes 81% of U.S. non-Christians living in the United States. Pew broke this data down further and found that 87% of people with no religion, 76% of those identifying as Buddhists and 73% of the Hindus celebrate Christmas.

Since we’re on the subject of commercialization, what’s the best “season’s greetings” merchants can give their customers? Again according to Pew Research (this time from a 2012 survey), about half the people (46%) could care less whether you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” But what about the other half? How many will you make merry by saying “Merry Christmas” and how many will you make happy by saying “Happy Holidays”? (Remember, the premise here is that a happy (or merry) customer is more likely to do business with you.) It turns out more than four-in-ten people (42%) prefer “Merry Christmas” while only one-in-ten (12%) prefer “Happy Holidays.”

The shopkeeper strategy is therefore quite evident. It’s clear there’s a risk offending some people whether you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” When faced with choices that might upset folks, it’s best to choose the option that is most likely to hurt the fewest feelings. If you believe the results of Pew’s surveys, then the hands-down best strategy for businesses is to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.”

So, let’s start this season on the right foot by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas…

…and a Happy Hanukkah to our friends of the Jewish faith.

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