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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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‘Merry Christmas’ Beating Out ‘Happy Holidays’

December 10, 2010 - 11:15 AM | by: Lauren Green

“Happy Holidays” is on the decline. In window displays and newspaper circulars, on websites and sometimes out of the mouths of sales clerks, more retailers are saying “Merry Christmas” this year.

Conservative Christian groups like the American Family Association and The Liberty Counsel have been turning up the heat on retailers for the last few years, creating top-100 “Naughty and Nice” lists and telling consumers which businesses they see as “Christmas friendly.” On some occasions the groups have mounted or threatened boycotts against retailers that didn’t meet their standards.

And now they say they’re seeing results.

“We’ve gone from 80 percent politically correct three to four years ago to 80 percent pro-Christmas message and advertising to consumers,” says Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the AFA.

“I don’t think we bullied; we simply let them know if you are going to offend us, we are going to use our back pocket as our voice and not shop in your store.”

Macy’s, Target and Wal-Mart made the AFA’s “Nice” list this year. Their “holiday shops” are Christmas shops again; holiday trees are Christmas trees. And their shoppers are seeing lots of signs that say Merry Christmas.

On the other hand, GAP (and its subsidiaries), Barnes & Noble and Victoria’s Secret remain on the AFA’s dwindling “Naughty” list. The Liberty Counsel also labels GAP as “Naughty,” along with its brand stores, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta and Piperlime.

Liberty Counsel says GAP uses plenty of winter themes, but it never mentions Christmas, and it says the company purged “Christmas” from its stores and advertisements.

GAP Inc. spokeswoman Renate Geerlings said in a statement that the chain is celebrating the holiday season in many ways, with Christmas trees, lights and wreaths.

“As a global retailer,” she said, “we respect a variety of traditions and faiths. We hope that our in-store experience appeals to our many customers.”

A spokeswoman for Limited Brands, the parent company for Victoria’s Secret, defended the retailer’s holiday marketing campaign, encouraging those who accuse them of not being Christmas-friendly to watch Victoria’s Secret’s latest commercial, which uses the word “Christmas.”

“One of Limited Brands’ core values is ‘Inclusion makes us stronger,’” she added.

Sharp said the Victoria’s Secret ad was a paltry substitute for any real Christmas spirit. “One commercial is all they offered in their entire defense,” he said. “No website, no circulars, no in-store recognition.” But Ken Bronstein, president of New York Atheists, said pressuring retailers to be “Christmas-friendly” serves only to separate Americans.

“We’re one nation, and everyone should be treated universally,” Bronstein said. “If someone wants to celebrate Christmas, let them do it. Stores have a right to do it, but in general, from a business point of view and from a country point of view, it’s best to call it holidays, the seasonal days … whatever you want to classify it. And I think we’d be better off that way.”

The skirmish in the stores is one of a few such battles being waged as Christmas approaches. The atheist Colorado Coalition of Reason is putting up three billboards protesting the Nativity scene at the Denver City & County Building, saying a representation of the birth of Jesus shouldn’t be placed on public property.

Last week in Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter changed his tune about renaming the city’s “Christmas Village” to “Holiday Village,” after he received scores of calls and emails. Nutter announced Wednesday night that the annual German market would retain its traditional “Christmas Village” name.

Also last week, American Atheists put up a billboard over a New Jersey highway mocking the Nativity scene, declaring, “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason!”

A few days later the Catholic League counterpunched with its own billboard on the New York side of the same highway, saying, “You know it’s real: this season celebrate Jesus. Merry Christmas from the Catholic League.”

“Our approach is positive, and services the common good,” Catholic League President Bill Donohue said in a press release. “Theirs is negative, and is designed to sow division. It’s what they do.”

American Atheists President Dave Silverman called the Catholic League’s billboard juvenile, adding that it lacked originality because it almost directly copied the atheists’ billboard. “They have a right to put it up,” Silverman said, “but [I] would appreciate if they wouldn’t steal our ideas.”

Pointing out that not everyone believes in Jesus, he added: “I think our billboard is designed for every human being,”

But people’s beliefs about Christmas have become part of the shopping experience in this country. Reports of Grinch-like behavior from stores can be found on Grinchalert.com, a website  sponsored by First Baptist Dallas Church on which shoppers can post their experiences about which retailers they consider “Christmas friendly” or not. Many of the places are regional, like Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Dallas, which got raves for its Christmas decor and “Merry Christmas” greetings from employees.

But in the case of national chains like Target and Macy’s, it’s about one specific store, which means they can be on both the Naughty and the Nice list.

One customer who put Target on the Naughty list wrote: “I was looking for an ornament that reflected the reason for the season, and I could not find anything that said Merry Christmas. I’m tired of seeing ONLY snowmen, Santa Clauses, snowflakes, birds, glitter, etc. I could not find a gift bag, an ornament, or a gift box with a manger or the Holy Family on it.”

Another shopper posted Target on the Nice list, writing, “Went into Target and noticed Merry Christmas signs hanging from the ceiling around the store.”

Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, says the church’s site lets shoppers tell their experiences, and that’s why stores can end up on both lists.

“We’re not compiling the list,” he said. “We’re providing the electronic paper.”

Sharp says the AFA gets dozens of letters every year from shoppers saying retail clerks have said they’re not allowed to say Merry Christmas to customers. But when AFA followed up with the retail chain or store, nearly all of the time it was not official corporate policy.

“The response we hear from corporate representatives is, ‘Our employees are free to greet our customers in a manner that is appropriate for the season,’” he said.

That sort of miscommunication appears to be behind a conflict at Wachovia bank in Florida. In the Tampa Bay area, a Fox affiliate reported that a customer closed her account at a Wachovia branch because she was told the company had a “No Christmas Tree” policy. Wachovia spokeswoman Christina Kolbjornsen said in a statement: “We respect the diversity of our customers and our team members, and we’re decorating our stores with poinsettia plants so everyone can be included.”

But Wells Fargo, which has taken over Wachovia banks, says there is no company policy on the issue and that decisions about displays are made at the local level. “There are no policies that say we can’t have Christmas trees in banks,” spokeswoman Mary Eshet said.

JP Morgan Chase bank in Southlake, Texas, also wound up on the wrong side of the Christmas tree kerfuffle. The bank became known as the Scrooge of the banking industry after it ordered a Christmas tree, which was donated by a local businessman, removed from the lobby because it violated bank policy.

The bank had a change of heart after more than 2,000 negative comments about its policy were posted on a local paper’s website. But the reversal may have come too late. Providence Bank of Texas, prominently displaying a Christmas tree and Nativity scene, has seen an influx of new customers since the controversy. Bank Chairman Mark Lovvorn won’t say they’re former Chase account holders, but he acknowledges that “we’ve had customers who said we appreciate your Christmas tree and Nativity scene, and that’s why we’re coming.”

The “pro-Christmas” advocates appear to have public opinion on their side. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that people prefer to be greeted with “Merry Christmas” over “Happy Holidays,” 69 to 24 percent.

According to a Fox News Opinion Dynamics Poll and the National Retail Foundation, more than 90 percent of Americans celebrate or observe Christmas in some way. And despite the recession, 2010 holiday retail sales are expected to increase 2.3 percent this year, to $447.1 billion, giving retailers something to be Merry — or Happy — about this shopping season.

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