10 Holiday Controversies

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
Santa Claus, Macy's parade
Santa Claus waves to the crowd during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. This traditionally marks the beginning of Christmas but stores are way ahead of the game, much to some people's dismay. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

You might have heard about the Birmingham city council in England deciding in 1998 to rename Christmas as Winterval, in order to be politically correct. Except it never happened. The term was on a list from the city's marketing team, which was trying to come up with a phrase to cover 41 different activities offered in Birmingham over the winter season. However, the story was picked up by mainstream media and repeated so many times, it was still being corrected in 2011 [source: Arscott].

That's just one example of a Christmas controversy. It seems the holiday, ostensibly dedicated to spreading joy, feasting and merry-making, is always mired in one contention or another. Some people think Christmas is too commercial; others think it is too religious — or not religious enough. Some find the very word offensive — others take offense to substitute words like "holiday." Some folks believe there is a war on Christmas. Others believe the only war is the hubbub stirred up by people who think there is a war on the holiday. Controversy is nothing new. The early Puritans banned Christmas celebrations in New England, deeming them too pagan.


The website DefendChristmas.com has been conducting a poll for the past 10 years and says that 95 percent of respondents just don't want to fight about it. They want to celebrate the holiday however they want.

But another 5 percent are apparently really invested in one outcome or the other. And they get all the media attention. Let's look at 10 hot-button controversies surrounding Christmas and Hanukkah.

10: What Do We Tell the Kids About Santa Claus?

waiting for Santa
Two kids wait for Santa to come down the chimney, circa 1950s. Some people think teaching children to believe in Santa undermines parents' credibility. George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

For decades, people have been arguing over whether it's good parenting to tell their kids that Santa Claus comes down the chimney bringing presents for good little girls and boys. The naysayers assert you should never lie to your kids. It ruins your credibility and trustworthiness. It's fine to bring Santa into your home via movies, books and the like, they say, as long as you tell your tots that Santa is just a made-up character in a story.

Those on the "pro" side note that young children believe in many fantasy figures such as fairies, monsters and superheroes, so adding Santa Claus to the mix is really no different. Believing in jolly old St. Nick is also a tradition stretching back generations for many; if belief didn't harm them, their parents or grandparents, say the Santa supporters, why would it be harmful for kids today? Most kids realize Santa is a fake by the time they're 7 or 8 years old anyway, and walk away unscathed [sources: Brown, Johnson]. Plus, Santa is everywhere at Christmastime, and the source of much joy. Why would you want to deprive kids of that?


The public radio show "This American Life" did an episode featuring a family that somehow convinced their children Santa was real even into their early teens. Needless to say, the kids were a bit traumatized to hear the truth. But that's the exception to the rule, right?

9: Real Tree or Fake?

family cutting Christmas tree
Wylds Farm in Hampshire, England, allows members of the public to choose and cut their own Christmas trees, just like this family is doing. Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

Oh, Tannenbaum! You cause so many kerfuffles. Should we call you a Christmas tree, a holiday tree or a giving tree? And after that's settled, should you be real or artificial? Which is better for the environment?

Real trees have a great piney smell (at least for the first week). But they tend to get dry and brittle and shed messy pine needles as time goes on. Only 2 percent of Christmas tree buyers still cut down trees from forests, but until the 1940s, forest depletion was a real concern [source: Lee]. Now, most people get their trees from Christmas tree farms. However, these trees have usually been sprayed with pesticides that can harm birds and possibly humans. Also, throwing the trees out at the end of the month adds to the garbage problem — unless you recycle them.


Fake trees have the advantage of being reusable every year and requiring less hassle to set up and take down — plus no shedding. But they're usually made of the plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which releases the chemical dioxin during production. And many fake trees have been found to be contaminated with lead, which has been linked to organ damage in animals. Plus, the manufacturing and transporting of so many plastic trees from China leaves a large carbon footprint. Further, they can't be recycled [sources: Main, Lee].

One scientific study found little difference between the two as far as environmental impact, but said artificial trees were slightly worse [source: ZME Science]. An expert advises that the greenest options are buying a potted Christmas tree that you can replant later or renting a potted tree that can be returned to the farm after the holidays [source: Lee].

8: Should You Say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas"?

Sears, Merry Christmas sign
A 'Merry Christmas' sign hangs on the door of a Sears store on Dec. 8, 2005, in Niles, Illinois. Sears put the word 'Christmas' back into some of their holiday promotions after a conservative group voiced their concerns. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Whether department store clerks wish their customers a "Merry Christmas," "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" seems to be an issue that gets under some people's craws. In the past 50 years or so, many stores have moved away from the standard "Merry Christmas" as people have become more sensitive to the fact that folks of other religions or no religion live in the U.S., too. Plus, "Happy Holidays" can encompass Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the New Year without requiring a switch in greeting.

The Public Religion Research Institute went through the trouble of checking to see what greeting "real people" prefer and the results weren't quite as expected. People living in the Midwest and West preferred "Merry Christmas" while people living in the Northeast and South liked "Happy Holidays" better. The reason seemed to be that African Americans, who make up a large portion of the Bible Belt South, preferred "Happy Holidays" even though most are very religious. And in the secularized West (think California and Oregon), the term "Merry Christmas" has been stripped of its religious connotations [source: FiveThirtyEight].


For years, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly kept a list of which department stores had their clerks say "Merry Christmas" and which ones said "Happy Holidays." In 2016, O'Reilly claimed that "the War on Christmas had been won" and that most companies were once again allowing their employees to say "Merry Christmas." O'Reilly didn't explain how he came to that conclusion. Maybe he just got tired of keeping the list.

7: Christmas Creep Gets Worse Every Year

Macy's store
People wait for Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day parade in 2014 under a display of giant ornaments at the store. People grumble that Christmas starts earlier each year — a dispute at least 100 years old. Zoran Milich /Getty Images

More than a few people cluck their tongues when Christmas tunes begin blaring from the radio in mid-November, or when ornaments begin dotting store shelves the minute the Halloween décor is removed. It's Christmas creep, they shout, railing against retailers and others who seem to push the season on us a little sooner every year.

Interestingly, the complaint about ever-earlier Christmas sales has been occurring in America since the 19th century. And with good reason. A Nov. 15, 1885, ad warned readers to start their Christmas shopping now! One that ran in 1912 gave the same advice in October [source: Collins].


Christmas creep is a long-standing complaint in England, too. In 2019, Christmas lights began twinkling along Oxford Street, London's most famous shopping venue, on Nov. 1, the earliest date yet. These lights signal the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season in the U.K. According to the Quartz Christmas Creep Calculator, this means that by 2030, Oxford Street's holiday lights will blink on Oct. 1 [source: Karaian].

Many Americans insist the start of the Christmas season is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. So that's the first time Christmas items should appear in stores and yuletide songs should be played on the radio. It's only right to celebrate one holiday at a time, they say. One expert told Newsweek that even though retail stores would love to start the holiday season early in the fall, Thanksgiving and Halloween require specific marketing of their own, so the Christmas-shopping season is unlikely to creep up much further than where it is now [source: Lees]. Uh, thanks?

6: Celebrating Hanukkah as the "Jewish Christmas"

Hanukkah dinner
An elder toasts at a Hanukkah dinner. Some people complain about the 'Christmastization' of Hanukkah. John Moore/Getty Images

Every year as Christmas nears, some Jews begin to fret about Hanukkah and its "Christmastization." Hanukkah is a minor holiday within Jewish tradition (the major celebrations are Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Dubbed "the festival of lights," it commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, and the fact that while the Jews only had enough oil to light the temple menorah for one night, the oil lasted for eight.

Hanukkah, which falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas (the dates change every year and are tied to the moon cycle), is observed for eight days. Celebrations generally feature the lighting of a family menorah — an additional candle each day — and playing the dreidel for chocolate coins. But the holiday is not supposed to be about giving and receiving presents and having a big dinner. In short, Hanukkah is not the Jewish version of Christmas [source: Rich].


But over the years, as Christmas became increasingly commercialized and ubiquitous, many Jewish families started beefing up their Hanukkah celebrations so their kids didn't feel left out of the fun. They began purchasing presents for others, sending Hanukkah cards and even decorating their lawns with giant menorahs. Some of these actions weren't an attempt to turn Hanukkah into the "Jewish Christmas" — but actually a means of asserting Jewish identity [sources: Rich, Crimmings].

Interestingly, at the turn of the 20th century, many American Jews actually celebrated Christmas. They didn't view this as turning their backs on their religion, but rather as embracing their assimilation into American society. Over time, however, rabbis and other religious leaders put the kibosh on this practice [source: Crimmings].

5: Does the Word "Xmas" Take Christ Out of Christmas?

Xmas ad
A 1900 print ad shows fancy linens for 'Xmas.' The substitution of "Xmas" for the word "Christmas" has a long and honorable history. Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The word "Christmas" is a bit long. Far easier and faster to scrawl "Xmas" on your holiday cards and notes. But if you do, be prepared for backlash from some who will insist that in doing so, you're slamming Christ. As in Jesus Christ, the baby born in a manger on Dec. 25 (according to the Christmas myth). The little guy who is responsible for everything Christmas, Santa included. But how is "Xmas" a dis?

Some argue the abbreviation "Xmas" was created by religion haters. If you write "Xmas," they assert, you're helping to commercialize the holiday and wipe away its true meaning. But they are misinformed. The term "Xmas" came about centuries ago. The first letter in the Greek word for "Christ" is "chi," and a capital chi is written as "X." So "Xmas" is an old, respectable abbreviation for "Christmas" [source: Mikkelson].


So, while some may intentionally scrawl "Xmas" as a jab at religion, its original usage was perfectly acceptable to the faithful.

4: Christmas Is Too Commercialized

Charlie Brown, Linus
In this scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Charlie Brown (left) decries the overwhelming materialism he sees among everyone during the holiday season. He needs help from Linus (right) to learn the real meaning of Christmas. ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

In the 1965 classic "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Charlie Brown complains about the commercialization of Christmas. Even his dog, Snoopy, gets carried away by the holidays, tricking out his doghouse with blinking lights, a star and ornaments. Today, many people continue to share Charlie Brown's frustration with the holiday's overemphasis on buying stuff.

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, the No. 1 thing people dislike about the Christmas and holiday season is its commercialization — 33 percent of respondents checked this box. Another 22 percent said they're not fans of the amount of money shelled out at this time of the year, while 10 percent dislike holiday shopping and crowds. More than two-thirds said the best part about the holiday is something very simple: spending time with family and friends.


Of course, sometimes words bely actions. The same group of survey respondents said they were going to purchase gifts (86 percent), put up a tree (79 percent) and send Christmas/holiday cards (65 percent) [source: Pew Research Center]. So, while many people lament Christmas as being too materialistic, plenty of the same folks do enjoy, or at least engage in, the hoopla.

3: What's Up With the Starbucks Cup?

red Starbucks cup
The 2015 Starbucks holiday cup launched a thousand articles and complaints. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's hard to imagine a paper cup was so controversial, but Starbucks' annual holiday cup was just that for years. The tradition of serving its joe in seasonal holders began in 1997, when a jazzy Santa debuted cup-side. From there the designs switched from snowmen and snowflakes to ornaments and carolers. And then, in 2015, the cup went minimalist: The "design" was an all-red affair — cherry at the top and slowly fading to a dusky ruby at the bottom [source: Whitten].

Starbucks officials said its plain red cup was intended to spur customers to create their own holiday doodles on the side. But some cried foul, saying the coffee giant was snubbing its nose at Christmas. No way, said defenders, noting there are always plenty of seasonally appropriate items for sale inside the Starbucks shops, including CDs, cookies and even Advent calendars. But the dust-up continued all through December [source: Whitten].


In 2016, Starbucks appeared eager to stave off more controversy while also poking fun at the previous year's situation. On Nov. 1, the coffee giant rolled out green cups covered with a sea of people, meant to represent unity. Then, on Nov. 10, its red cups debuted. The 2016 cups featured designs created by 13 customers from six countries, which apparently did not generate the contention of previous years [source: Goldman]. In 2021, the cup was red and green and covered in ribbons and Starbucks logos. The cup had moved on from flashpoint in the "War on Christmas" to social media meme, The Washington Post reported.

2: Religious Displays in Public Venues

Nativity scene, Chicago
This Nativity scene is an attraction at Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza, Chicago — and also the subject of protests. Chris McKay/Getty Images

For decades Nativity scenes were regularly placed in public settings in America, places like courthouses and city parks. But in more recent years, atheists and civil liberties activists have declared crèches set on public property a violation of the separation of church and state, a tenet of American society. Individuals and groups began suing — with varied results — and so the battle resumes every holiday season, and is settled in different ways.

Indiana's Tippecanoe County once featured a Nativity scene in front of its courthouse. But after protests, an ordinance was passed in 1999 banning religious displays. Ever since then, one resident places a Nativity scene in the back of his pickup and parks the truck in front of the courthouse during the holidays, a perfectly legal move [source: Flores].


Meanwhile, the state of Wisconsin resolved the issue by allowing all traditions to use the Capitol rotunda. Today you typically see a Nativity scene, Christmas tree, menorah, Festivus pole and winter solstice scene (with Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain as the "Three Wise Men") on display. "The rotunda is getting very cluttered," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, in a gross understatement to the Associated Press.

The Supreme Court has said that if a Nativity scene is part of a display with other holiday symbols (like Santa Claus, reindeer, a tree or a menorah) then it is acceptable to display on government property. The Court noted that factors such as where the Nativity scene is displayed (such as high-traffic areas) and what sorts of religious sayings or messages are part of the display also should be considered when determining if a Nativity scene can be displayed on government-owned property [source: FindLaw].

1: Controversial Holiday Sweaters

ugly holiday sweaters
Ugly Christmas sweaters are for sale at the Frugalista second-hand store in Washington, D.C. While the only crime these garments have committed is against good taste, other holiday sweaters have gotten into trouble for their messages. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Holiday sweaters aren't just typically ugly — they can cause heated debates, too. In 2015, Target carried a bright red sweater that boldly proclaimed "OCD: Obsessive Christmas Disorder," which some said was a slam at those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, known by its OCD acronym. Meanwhile, Nordstrom was selling a blue sweater that featured a large menorah, dreidels and Stars of David, plus the tag "Chai Maintenance" in a nod to a negative stereotype about Jewish women. Nordstrom pulled its offensive sweater after the outcry, although Target did not [source: Channick].

Two years before, Hallmark created a tiny ornament depicting an ugly holiday sweater. Trying to be politically correct, the sweater featured the phrase, "Don we now our FUN apparel!", a modification of the lyric in "Deck the Halls" that reads, "Don we now our gay apparel." The lyric change ended up offending nearly everyone. Gays and liberals pointed out the word "gay" is nothing to be ashamed about. Conservatives argued Hallmark should not have bowed to the politically correct by substituting a word that originally meant "happy" and, well, "fun."

After mastering the unusual feat of angering people on both the left and the right, Hallmark apologized for the offending ornament, and it quickly disappeared from the company's website [sources: Top Tenz, Lutz].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Holiday Controversies

My goodness, reading about all of these controversies right as the holidays are arriving is both sad and funny. Sad that a holiday season intended to spread love and joy can generate so much nastiness, yet funny to see all of the little things that people can get so worked up about. Just chill, everyone!

Related Articles

More Great Links

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