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Senior Correspondent

Again this year there is a hoo-ha over whether it is proper to greet each other with "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." A handful of conservative commentators, led by Bill O’Reilly, have for years made a federal case out of the controversy. They claim that the “happy holidays” designation is just another evidence that the good old Christian USA is forsaking its religious roots, and that there are those seeking to turn the nation into a godless secular society.

Some religious types continue to lament what they believe to be the kidnapping of Jesus’ birth by commercial interests. I once worked for a very pious caterer who thundered about “Satan Clause.” The month of December has become the most important mercantile season. Merchants must make it big during these weeks, or the entire commercial year might go down as a disaster. If religious themes can be used to perk up sales, that’s well and good.

Meanwhile the churches increasingly seem to limp along in second place, trying to hold on to what they believe to be the Christian derivation of the days. Jews have linked one of their traditions onto the festive season by popularizing a minor festival called "Chanukah." Africans have given us Kwanzaa, with its gift-giving and colorful celebrations. Others we rudely and wrongly refer to as “pagans” talk about the winter solstice as the occasion for all manner of celebrations, noting that Dec. 25 marks the return of the sun. If anyone has the best historic claim on the season, the "pagans" probably have the inside track. Whenever Jesus was born, it was not late in December. Shepherds did not watch their flocks by night in the winter. Early Christians latched onto that date by borrowing its meaning from other more ancient religious traditions. The coming of Jesus was the sign of hope and light in a dark world.

So nobody has an exclusive claim. Why should any of us be offended when people out of non-Christian motives call out “Happy Holidays”? Why should a Jewish or Muslim merchant, or even someone with no religious motivation, be required to go about mouthing “Merry Christmas”? Let that appellation be used by those for whom it makes religious sense, and not worry because others simply see the season as a secular occasion.

The festive days are the common property of a number of cultural entities, some religious and some secular. While I do fret a bit about the hard core commercialism which surrounds these weeks, I love the secular music as well as the carols, the lovely displays in department store windows as well as the crèches on church lawns, the “Ho, Ho, Ho" of that jolly old elf as well as the gifts given in memory of the babe of Bethlehem.

Whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or none of the above, there can be something beautiful and profound for all of us. Perhaps my favorite way to say it came from Scrooge’s nephew who countered the old grump’s putdown of the season as “humbug” with these words:

Humbug uncle? I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

So whether we say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays," perhaps we can all say with Tiny Tim, "God bless us, everyone."

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