The Ghost of Christmas Greetings
Published by The
State, December 30, 2005
On the third day before Christmas, as I walked into the bank,
I crossed paths with a politically prominent acquaintance. Our
encounter lasted but a few seconds—a handshake, a "how
are you?" and an almost simultaneous exchange of good wishes.
His: "Merry Christmas." Mine: "Happy holidays."
Later, I told my wife: "Well, now he'll have me pegged
for one of those PC Yankees."
Not that he would, of course. We even belong to the same church.
But we've been through the season where not only Santa's been
making and checking lists. We've read the scolding opinion of
a federal judge in Pennsylvania that Intelligent Design "cannot
uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents." In
other words, intelligent design is de facto, and now de jure,
the equivalent of creationism, in regard to its being taught
in public schools as an alternative to science.
All this serves to remind us that words have both meaning and
power. To use them loosely is to undermine their significance
and effectiveness. To purposefully misuse them is to mislead
and undermine our credibility.
As a journalist/educator—a redundancy, if you accept,
as I do, that journalists serve to educate—words are my
business. I seek to use them carefully, advisedly and within
the scope of their definition.
When I hear the word "hate" used by someone in my
family, I tend to admonish that "hate is a strong word" that
should be used in limited and extreme situations. It should not,
for example, be applied to Clemson or USC by devotees of the
other school's teams. It might apply to Brussels sprouts.
It should not be applied to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists,
animists or atheists, for that matter. It occurred to me on Christmas
Eve that hate is an extraordinarily hard word to summon while
kneeling in a pew, singing "Silent Night." That's how
it should be.
In the shorthand of journalism where headline space or television
time is limited, we are quick to apply labels and buzz words.
Somewhere in this paper, you are likely to find a story that
does not quite jibe with its headline. Thin-skinned reporters
(an oxymoron?) typically remind critics that someone else usually
writes the headlines. Headline writers, to give each his/her
due, have the extraordinary challenge of being exact and succinct.
Their effort may be abetted or abused by trying to be cute or
A label or characterization can be misleading. What does it
mean any more to refer to a politician as "liberal" or "conservative"?
Might a "liberal" in the South be more conservative
than a "conservative" from the North? And who said
geography has anything to do with it? Do political beliefs lie
on a line with extremists at the extreme? Or is the political
continuum a circle where the extremists are, painfully and even
dangerously, close together?
What happens when we make a false presumption?
I participated in a conference of journalists and foreign policy
experts in Morocco a few years ago where the question of peace
in the Middle East was thoroughly debated. On about the third
day, an Arab colleague remarked that it was good to hear the
perspective of an open-minded American Jew.
"But I'm not Jewish," I responded.
"I was told you were," the Arab replied.
Did the revelation make my observations less relevant? Did we
discard three days of dialogue? Never mind.
In this season when we hope for Peace on Earth and suffer with
war in Iraq, President Bush was chastised by some for sending
greetings for the "Holiday Season" without mentioning
Christmas. The Bushes' White House card did include a verse of
scripture, albeit Old Testament.
In good journalistic style, I did some research by pulling out
a file of previous White House cards we'd received. Indeed, President
Bush's parents wished us a "merry Christmas," but the
Clintons' cards called for a "blessed holiday season." I
don't recall making a distinction at the time. The pictures unmistakably
showed the White House in Christmas trim.
Now we have almost a whole year ahead of us to think about this.
More likely, other concerns will occupy us. The holidays ahead—Valentine's
Day, St. Patrick's Day, the Fourth of July—are, with the
exception of Easter, secular events. Or do we want to quibble
over the antecedents of Sts. Valentine and Patrick?
Meanwhile, have a Happy New Year—2006 or the Chinese Year
of the Dog. Take your pick.