Can You Get In Trouble for Saying “Merry Christmas?”

Bizarre, NakedLaw

If you’ve had to bite your tongue before uttering the words, “Merry Christmas,” you’re aware of the growing demand to be politically correct when uttering holiday greetings. For several decade now the term “Christmas” or any of its religious aspects have been increasingly censored, avoided, or discouraged by many advertisers, retailers, government, and other public organizations. But just how much trouble can you really get into for acknowledging the Christian holiday?

Last year, members the House of Representatives were told not to send out holiday greetings including the words “Merry Christmas” in official mailing.  This year North Carolina college students selling Christmas trees for charity were surprised when the college changed all advertising from “Christmas trees” to “holiday trees,” allegedly saying that, “We cannot market your trees in association solely with a Christian event.”

While the Religious News Service reported that 9 out of 10 Americans plan to celebrate Christmas in 2011, the Religion News Poll found that Americans were split — 44 percent in favor and 49 opposed–on whether retailers should use generic holiday greetings out of respect for people of different faiths. On the other hand, another poll this year shows that 68 percent of shoppers prefer to be greeted with “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays,” so it depends on who you ask.

What About Free Speech?

If your boss can fire you for not following seemingly trivial company rules — shaving your beard, wearing a collared shirt, or not chewing gum — you can bet they can fire you for saying “Merry Christmas” if asked not to. And while firing an atheist who refuses to dress up like an elf and say “Happy Holidays!” to customers might seem discriminatory, suing for wrongful termination could be tricky.

While a Florida state law making it illegal to blast loud music from a car stereo was recently declared unconstitutional for violating free speech rights, a friendly Christmas greeting can legally get you fired if your employer has made it clear that it is not permissible. While it is not illegal to say “Merry Christmas,” (that would violate the First Amendment), your boss can ask you not to say it out of respect for non-Christian customers or coworkers.

Christmas Day is recognized as an official federal holiday by the United States government; however, many groups — such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State — argue that government-funded displays of Christmas imagery and traditions violate the First Amendment since it promotes Christianity. The battle over whether the long-held tradition of holding public Christmas nativity displays should be banned has become rather heated as of late, and the city of Santa Monica has decided to end the tradition of having such displays in Palisades Park. Recently, an Arkansas elementary school took a heap of heat from angry parents opposing a field trip to see a stage production of A Charlie Brown Christmas at a church.

Retail Messaging

While many retailers have removed Christmas from their advertising do so simply to not offend those who celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanza, or other associated holidays, some major retailers — who are aware that many Christians boycott stores who refuse to acknowledge Christmas — very boldly display the words “Merry Christmas!” in their advertising. The American Family Association provides a new “Naughty or Nice?” list every year listing retailers who do and don’t recognize Christmas; it appears that this year Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, Sears, and Best Buy are considered Christmas-friendly, while GAP and Old Navy are encouraged to be boycotted by the list.

Some believe the so-called “War on Christmas” may be dying down a bit, at least since the popularity of news articles on the subject have dwindled on Google since 2005 — the same year the Capitol Hill tree was renamed the “Capitol Hill Christmas Tree” after being called a “holiday tree” since the 1990s. At any rate, it’s likely there will be controversy over the use of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” on both sides for years to come.