Christmas Wins at Wal-Mart

NEW YORK —Thanksgiving isn't even here yet, but that didn't stop the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights from wrangling with mega-retailer Wal-Mart over Christmas.

At issue was a Wal-Mart employee's attempt to debunk Christmas in response to a customer, and a corporate policy that unapologetically promoted winter holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa but not Christmas.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue called for a boycott of the retail giant Nov. 1 because of its de-emphasis of Christmas. After a week of rebuttals, Wal-Mart relented.

Wal-Mart's actions are not the first time a retailer has caught heat for slighting Christmas. Last year, Target banned the longtime Christmas tradition of Salvation Army bell-ringers soliciting outside their stores before Christmas. The Federated Department Stores, which includes Macy's, was criticized for removing “Merry Christmas” signs from their stores and using the generic “Happy Holidays” greetings with customers.

One popular author calls these skirmishes a “War on Christmas.”

“What goes on in this war on Christmas is often instigated by someone in a school, city hall or library who has just left a diversity meeting, and they start issuing orders that look a lot like what the Wal-Mart e-mail looked like,” said John Gibson, host of The Big Story on Fox News and the author of The War on Christmas.

In Gibson's book, he examines the impact of government and quasi-government organizations pushing Christmas aside.

“When it happens in a school, a student comes away wondering, ‘Why does my religion offend people?’” said Gibson. “It discourages the free expression of religion and is unconstitutional.”

Manuel Zammarano of Orangevale, Calif. formed the Committee to Save Merry Christmas in an effort to preserve the culture and tradition of Christmas, and to put pressure on retailers such as Macy's owner.

That company responded, “Phrases such as ‘seasons greetings’ and ‘happy holidays’ embrace all the various religious, secular and ethnic celebrations that take place in the November/December period. Because these expressions of good will are more reflective of the multi-cultural society in which we live today, they tend to be used more and more frequently across all segments of society.”

Gibson pointed out, though, that, “the most authoritative polls suggest that around 85% of Americans self-identify as Christians, with the second largest group being those with no religion. And 90% of Americans practice Christmas and do Christmas shopping. Why tell them that there's something wrong with what they are doing and that we can't mention Christmas? That seems self-destructive.”

Triumph at Wal-Mart

The Wal-Mart controversy started when a female customer e-mailed Wal-Mart complaining about the corporation's decision to use the greeting “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” She received this e-mailed response from a Wal-Mart associate named Kirby:

“Wal-Mart is a world-wide organization and must remain conscious of this. The majority of the world still has different practices other than ‘christmas’ which is an ancient tradition that has its roots in Siberian shamanism. The colors associated with ‘christmas’ red and white are actually a representation of the aminita mascera mushroom. Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses (sic), mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoths and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide, wide world.”

When Donohue sent Kirby's response to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., Dan Fogleman, senior manager, public relations, responded:

“As a retailer, we recognize some of our customers may be shopping for Chanukah or Kwanza (sic) gifts during this time of year, and we certainly want these customers in our stores and to feel welcome, just as we do those buying for Christmas,” wrote Fogleman. ”As an employer, we recognize the significance of the Christmas holiday among our family of associates … and close our stores in observance, the only day during the year that we are closed.”

That's when the Catholic League announced its boycott, sending a letter to 126 religious organizations asking them to refrain from doing their Christmas shopping at the corporation's 3,000 stores.

“We're asking for an apology for the e-mail response from Kirby, and we're also asking Wal-Mart to change their website,” said Kieran McCaffrey, director of communications for the Catholic League.

On Wal-Mart's website, when customers typed “Christmas” into the search engine they were brought to a generic “Holiday” page rather than a Christmas section, while those searching for Hanukkah or Kwanzaa items were taken directly to a page featuring such items. The Catholic League described this as “discriminatory.”

“It is unfortunate that this issue has been taken out of context,” Fogleman originally told the Register via e-mail. “This year hundreds of thousands of customers will buy Christmas decorations, gifts and thousands of items to celebrate the Christmas holiday at Wal-Mart.”

However, two hours later Fogleman issued an apology, and Wal-Mart altered its website.

“We at Wal-Mart believe this e-mail between a temporary associate and one of our valued customers was entirely inappropriate. Its contents in no way represent the policies, practices or views of our company,” said the statement. “This associate, who was hired less than three weeks ago, is no longer employed by our company. We sincerely apologize to any person or organization that was offended by the inappropriate and inflammatory comments made by this former associate.”

“This is a sweet victory for the Catholic League, Christians in general, and people of all faiths,” Donohue said in a press statement made after Wal-Mart's apology, announcing the end of the Catholic League's boycott. “It means that Wal-Mart can now enter the Christmas season without this cloud hanging over it.”

Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.