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The Holidays vs. XMAS vs. Christmas: A Terminological Debate

Ron is the founding pastor of a church in Harrisburg, PA. He is a graduate of Denver Seminary in Colorado.

These terms are a very hot topic this time of year.

These terms are a very hot topic this time of year.

My alma mater, the University of Tennessee, recently got itself into hot water about Christmas. The school’s Office of Cultural Diversity issued a set of guidelines, entitled “Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace,” that sought to inform the campus community of behavior that would be inappropriate during the holiday season. Their admonitions included the following:

  • Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture. Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise [emphasis added].
  • Supervisors and managers should not endorse, or be perceived as endorsing, religion generally or a specific religion.
  • Holiday parties and celebrations should not play games with religious and cultural themes–for example, “Dreidel” or “Secret Santa.” If you want to exchange gifts, then refer to it in a general way, such as a practical joke gift exchange or secret gift exchange.

...no emphasis on religion or culture. Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.

— University of Tennessee Office of Cultural Diversity

Faced with an immense backlash from citizens and politicians, the university eventually removed these recommendations from its website. But the fact that they were published in the first place raises an important question.

Is There a War Being Waged Against Christmas?

For years now many Christians have been concerned about what they perceive as a war against Christmas. That “war” consists of widespread efforts by secularists to turn the traditional Christmas season into “the holidays,” thus stripping the season of any associations that might be considered “religious.” Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, declares that:

"Stores, schools and communities across America continue to find new and intolerant reasons to remove any religious references to Christmas, stripping it of any holy or historical significance. Christian songs, prayers and other spiritually vital connections to the Lord Jesus Christ are deleted or diminished."

That would certainly seem to be what the University of Tennessee was doing in its attempt to insure that campus holiday celebrations would be totally devoid of any religious associations.

A Christmas Tree or a Holiday Tree?

Another example of a perceived attempt to turn Christmas into a strictly secular holiday was the tree lighting ceremony at the Rhode Island Statehouse in 2012. Governor Lincoln Chafee caused a nationwide uproar when he officially designated the 17-foot spruce a “holiday tree” rather than a Christmas tree. After receiving 3,500 calls of protest from across the country, and only 92 of support, the governor expressed astonishment that anyone could be offended by his choice of words:

"If it's in my house it's a Christmas tree,” Chafee said, “but when I'm representing all of Rhode Island I have to be respectful of everyone."

It apparently did not occur to the governor that people to whom Christmas is not just a holiday, but an event of great spiritual and cultural significance, might be offended by his attempt to redirect a traditional symbol of Christmas into a strictly secular realm.

“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?

The practice of stripping our holiday celebrations of any connection with Christmas is becoming more and more ingrained in our society. As John Gibson puts it:

"Happy holidays!" Every time a supermarket checker or store clerk greets you with those words instead of "Merry Christmas," you have met another soldier in the war against Christmas. Secularists are bent on imposing upon us a neutered, secular winter holiday that throws out every trace of Christianity from the public observance of Christmas.

So, is there an ongoing war against Christmas? From the perspective of many who value Christmas as a celebration of the coming of Christ into the world, it certainly seems that there is.

Secularists Don’t See Any War Against Christmas

Typically, the very people some accuse of waging the war against Christmas scoff at the idea. For example, in a 2005 article on Salon.com, Michelle Goldberg insisted that there is no such war. "What there is, rather, is the burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas, assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends, exaggerated anecdotes and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union."

How can it be that people on one side of the issue see a fierce fight being waged against Christmas and all it stands for, while those on the other side are convinced that the war against Christmas is a “fake” and “phony” sham?

What’s Happening to Christmas in Our Culture?

I think the confusion we see in this debate arises because we have conflated three different things into one, and don’t carefully distinguish between them. For our purposes in this article, let’s designate the three as:

  • Christmas
  • XMAS
  • The Holidays

If we recognize that "Christmas" and "The Holidays" are not really trying to occupy the same space, we can be comfortable with people celebrating whichever they choose.


What is Christmas?

Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger."

Luke 2:10-12

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

Christmas is the celebration of the coming into the world of God’s greatest gift to mankind, His Son, Jesus. It is the proclamation of the “good tidings of great joy” that because Christ came, we have the promise of eternal life, and with it, peace and goodwill on earth. As the word itself indicates*, Christmas is from beginning to end all about Christ.

* According to dictionary.com, the word “Christmas” comes from the Old English words Cristes moesse, meaning the mass or festival of Christ.


I think of XMAS, the abbreviation often used for Christmas, as the cultural and commercial expression of the ideals of Christmas. It is Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and presents under the tree. XMAS attempts to capture the spirit of Christmas but with only the faintest acknowledgement of the Christ of Christmas.

One of the things that has caused many people, whether Christians or not, to connect so strongly with XMAS is that it has incorporated some of the most treasured values traditionally associated with Christmas: peace, joy, love, family, unselfish giving, and hope for a better world. I believe that for most people, it is these values that come to mind when they think of “Christmas.”

XMAS adopts the values of Christmas, and shares with "The Holidays" some traditional holiday practices

XMAS adopts the values of Christmas, and shares with "The Holidays" some traditional holiday practices

Most people today celebrate XMAS far more intently than they do Christmas itself. Think about the universally popular symbols of XMAS: Santa Claus, XMAS trees, XMAS cards, XMAS presents. None of these things has any direct association with the coming of Christ. But for many people in our society they are far more representative of the way Christmas is actually celebrated than is the Babe in a manger.

Giving gifts is a common practice of the season, but it doesn't have any direct association with the coming of Christ.

Giving gifts is a common practice of the season, but it doesn't have any direct association with the coming of Christ.

One oft-lamented aspect of XMAS is the commercialism it embodies. All those gifts that are exchanged have to be bought and paid for, and so are advertised ad nauseam in the media. But most of us manage to not allow the commercialism to overpower the values that make the Christmas season so special.

Although we love the values XMAS has borrowed from the original Christmas, many people don’t want their XMAS celebration tied too closely to the specifically Christian teaching about the advent of Christ.

A good example of the way XMAS embodies values associated with Christmas without directly acknowledging Christ is the classic Charles Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol.” The saga of Ebenezer Scrooge being taught the true meaning of Christmas is considered an iconic affirmation of the Christmas spirit. Yet, the name of Christ is never mentioned.

The Holidays

“The Holidays” has become the secular term for what was traditionally known as the Christmas season. It is, in essence, a year-end/New Year celebration entirely divorced from Christmas and all that Christmas represents. While retaining some of the most beloved trappings of XMAS, such as exchanging holiday cards and presents under the holiday tree, “The Holidays” deliberately and specifically excludes any references to the Christian underpinnings of Christmas.

How to End the Christmas Wars

There need not be any war for or against Christmas if both Christians and non-Christians will allow others to engage in their preferred celebration.

  • Christians prefer to celebrate the true Christmas and the Christ it represents.
  • Secular people may prefer to celebrate “the holidays” with no reference to Christ at all.
  • And huge numbers of people in countries around the world, Christians and non-Christians alike, prefer to include a large element of XMAS, with Santa bringing gifts to all good children, in their year-end celebrations.

Believers Must Let Secularists Celebrate “The Holidays”

Christians should remember that Christmas is not a biblically mandated observance, and no one has a duty to celebrate it.

If non-Christians prefer having a Christ-less “holiday” season, that is their prerogative. Stores that instruct their staff to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” have simply chosen to celebrate The Holidays instead of Christmas, and they have a perfect right to do so. Christians need not take offense.

You can’t force people who don’t value what Christmas stands for to act as if they do.

That’s not to say that Christians should be timid about their own public expressions of the real meaning of Christmas.

One of the most beloved Christmas-themed television specials of all time is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” A particular irony of that program, which first aired in 1965 and has been shown every Christmas season since, is that its creator, Charles Schulz, had to insist against strong opposition that the show include an actual reference to the birth of Christ.

Schulz wanted to have a scene in which Linus recited the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Network executives strongly objected, fearing that their audience would be put off by any allusion to “religion” (gasp!) in a broadcast about Christmas. But Charles Schulz would not back down, and the Luke segment has become one of the most cherished highlights of the entire show.

VIDEO: Linus Reciting the Christmas Story From Luke's Gospel

Secularists Must Stop Trying to Prevent Public Celebrations of Christmas

If the perception of a war against Christmas is to end, secularists must stop trying to drive the symbols of Christmas, and even of XMAS, from the public square.

Antics like admonishing people to “ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise” or refusing to call that seasonally decorated fir a Christmas tree, are nothing less than attempts to force religious people to keep any acknowledgement of the real meaning of Christmas hidden behind the doors of the home or church.

Many champions of “diversity” fail to realize that their insistence on “The Holidays” as the only year-end celebration fit for public exposure is actually an attempt to impose their own values on everyone else. That is not what “diversity” means!

Another thing that secularists need to acknowledge is that the values we treasure in this season, love, joy, peace, and all the rest, have nothing to do with “the holidays.” They derive their power from the biblical account of Christ coming into the world as the expression of God’s love for all people. When that foundation is discarded, those values cannot stand on their own and will eventually evaporate.

That means that even those who only want to celebrate “the holidays” still need for Christmas to remain a vibrant element of our shared cultural environment.

Let’s Call a Truce in the Christmas Wars!

The real cause of the “war on Christmas” is the determination of each side, the believers and the secularists, to force everyone else to celebrate the season in what that group considers the “right” way.

If we’ll just allow believers to celebrate Christmas, and secularists to celebrate “The Holidays,” and everybody to include as much of XMAS as they desire, the Christmas wars will end.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2015 Ronald E Franklin


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 14, 2016:

Thanks, Jack. Yes, there are many in our society dedicated to removing God from the public square, and Christians certainly need not sit passively by and let that happen. But neither should we adopt the intemperate and intolerant tactics that are being used against us. We stand firmly for the truth, doing so with respect and, as we are commanded, with love.

Jack Lee from Yorktown NY on January 10, 2016:

The war on Christmas is being waged by the ACLU and other groups. They want to remove God from the public square. Their perverted interpretation of the Constitution and the Separation Of Church and State. They have made progress in our schools by using the courts to do their bidding. I agree with you that we should live and let live. When someone wishes me a Happy Holiday, I would inquire respectfully, which Holiday is that? It does make people stop and think. Great hub.

Geri McClymont on January 02, 2016:

That was my error. I should have known that Schultz is no longer with us, so my apologies. I understand your message and thank you. Yes, the same mindset is even more widespread today.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 02, 2016:

Thanks again, gerimcclym. Yes, the battle continues. I didn't mean to imply that Schultz himself is still fighting it - he died in 2000. But the same mindset that opposed him in 1965 has only gotten more widespread today, as evidenced by the Kentucky situation.

Geri McClymont on January 02, 2016:

Wow, I love that the audience itself recited the verse when their school district banned it from the play! That speaks for itself. And I did not know that Schultz is still fighting that battle. Something to pray about. Thanks for sharing and thanks again for a great article.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 02, 2016:

Thanks, gerimcclym. Actually the fight Schultz had to fight is still ongoing. I saw in the news that a school district in Kentucky (of all places) required that the Luke recitation be left out when their kids did the play. However at the point in the play where it should have appeared, the audience itself recited it. The superintendent was not pleased.

Geri McClymont on January 01, 2016:

An excellent article on this topic. I am so glad the Charlie Brown Christmas Story still includes the verse from Luke and had not realized that Schultz fought so hard to keep that on there. That is so encouraging.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 13, 2015:

Thanks for sharing, Rich.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 13, 2015:

MsDora, yes the war against not just Christmas, but against the Christ of Christmas is very real. But "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal..." People who don't have Christ in their hearts won't have Him in their Christmas. The focus should be on lifting Him up so that people are drawn to Him. Then the Christmas issue takes care of itself.

Rich Kelley from The Ekklesia on December 13, 2015:

Most of the comments are positive to the pagan holiday so let me see if I can confuse the issue with some often chosen to ignore facts.

1) Christmas is the term Christ Mass combined. Christ's Mass is conducted in the Catholic church many times a day all over the world. It is the actual re-sacrifice of Christ on their alters at the front of the church building (Temple) by a Priest.

2) December 25 is not His birthday, everyone knows that.

3) Doing it for the "children" really means they want to perpetuate the lie.

4) None of the New Testament Disciples of Christ participated in the pagan holiday held on December 25. It was not until the institutional church was started by Constintine about 325AD that the combining of pagan rituals to be "all inclusive" started. We have gone full circle all will be included now and "professing Christians" object. (Ironic?)

5) You can mean anything you want when you say merry Christmas but what you are saying is may his sacrifice (again) be merry. Saying one thing and meaning another is a rationalizing disorder of some kind I'm sure.


Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 12, 2015:

I see the war to destroy Christmas and everything Christian it stands for, but I think it's late. Just let the Christians keep Christ in Christmas and celebrate meaninfgully. That's the best way to fight back --which is not fighting at all.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 11, 2015:

Many thanks, Jodah. I'm with you on "happy holidays." I've decided that when someone says that to me, my response, with a smile, will be, "Thank you, and a very merry Christmas to you."

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 11, 2015:

Thank you, emge. Getting to right answers requires starting with correct principles, and the principle of allowing people to make their own choices is a good starting point.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on December 11, 2015:

This is a wonderful hub Ron. To me, being retired and only working part time and from home, "Happy Holidays" means nothing to me. If others want to refer to this time of year as that..fine..but I will always say "Merry Christmas." The fact that the Charlie Brown Christmas episodes is one of the most popular shows of all time says a lot about what the majority believe. We should all live and let live and stop trying to change and alter each other's values and beliefs. I wrote a poetry hub this year called "Have a Very Merry Giftmas" that portrays much the same message as this. Thank you for your wise words.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 11, 2015:

An excellent post that raises pertinent questions, butt there are no simple answers

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 11, 2015:

Thank you, stevarino. As I say in the article, there is far more of XMAS, with its inherent commercialism, in the way most people celebrate the season than there is of the real Christmas. But that doesn't mean the real Christmas has been diminished! Those of us who wish still have the choice to keep our focus on the Christmas of Christ rather than on the XMAS of the shopping center.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 11, 2015:

Thanks, Eric. I appreciate that. Part of what I wanted to say in this article is that all the commercialism is not part of Christmas, but of what I call XMAS. And it's perfectly order to choose to celebrate Christmas and leave XMAS alone! I think there definitely are a lot of people who would like to suppress all references to Christ (and by extension, Christmas) in the public square. It goes both ways - Christians can't expect non-believers to honor Christ during the season, and secularists can't expect Christians to forego honoring Him.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 11, 2015:

Thank you, Rota. As you say, the key is to be respectful of the choices of others while remaining true to our own convictions.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 11, 2015:

Michael-Milec, you are very right - the real war is, and has been from the first Christmas, against Christ Himself. But we know who wins that war! Thanks for sharing.

Steve Dowell from East Central Indiana on December 11, 2015:

Christmas was originally meant to celebrate the birth of Christ which, if I'm not mistaken, historically occurred nearer the date of Easter in the calendar, but has been moved over the ages until finally ending-up near the end of the year. The original intent has been overshadowed by commercialism to the point that it become secondary at best.

Thanks again for another great hub!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 11, 2015:

Great job Ron with a great conclusion. I am a Grinch about commercial Christmas. My wife says I am just too cheap to buy bundles of things for people and call them gifts. And I am fairly convinced that the day we celebrate has no relationship to the actual "birthday". But putting all that aside I just love the sentiment. To celebrate the birth of a savior of man. Now that is cool. I get teary eyed just writing about it. I go to a few parties and for me they are Christmas parties. I suppose I would not be invited if that offended folks. So I just wonder who all these folks are who want to get Christmas out of Christmas. Where are they? Or is it just media and commercial hype to promote something?

Rota on December 11, 2015:

You have done an excellent job of discussing whats going on...great work! I say live and let live. In an attempt not to offend, everyone is getting offended! Its good to be respectful of others but we all need to be authentic to our own beliefs. Best hub I've read recently.

Michael-Milec on December 10, 2015:

Hello RonElFran, Blessed "Christmas"- the joy of living presence of the King of kings, the living Word within - your heart - our hearts.

Lately a christmas has become to many people many different things. Not only is a "war on Christmas" - more than that is a disrespect to very own personal nobility of being children of the most High God while accepting i pagans way of celebrating- partying.... We have realized that mistake way back in my birth country immediately following ww2 when the communism ruled with the same demonic dictatorship experienced presently on this Continent. For us, the believers then, as it is now, a "Christmas" ( many other names in different cultures) became a joyful heart of celebrating freedom to love Jesus, worshiping in deeds and humility , peacefully often without words , plainly letting our light to shine so that instead of hatred and opposition toward 'christians' the people have seen our "good deeds..." (Matt.5:16).

That's what a"christmas" is to me my brother... Now in this culture during this season , my response is , the merry people have merry christmas and the other according to their hearts...

The "real war" as I see it isn't as much as against traditional " christmas scene" mostly it is a war of the power of darkness waging against the sound of the Name above all names , the Christ Jesus...

The faithful souls - we the redeemed -ones are given the authority to use that Name, and whenever we tell to a stranger- sinner-pagan- or semi-christian "Jesus loves you"- the Spirt takes over and we just walk away glorifying His Holy name.

Peace with us.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 10, 2015:

Michaela, thanks for reading and sharing. As I indicate in the article, I certainly agree that all of us should be free to celebrate however we wish. Where I would disagree with you (if I understand you correctly) is in the idea that all religions and traditions deserve equal public recognition during the Christmas season. This season was established as a public holiday time specifically for the purpose of celebrating Christmas. I don't think it right that other traditions should assert the right to piggyback on that time. It's as if you spent a lot of time and effort clearing land in the wilderness for planting, and once it was cleared, I and 20 others came and asserted the right to cohabit in that clearing. I think you would answer, "go clear your own plot of land." In the same way, other traditions that want to be publicly acknowledged should do the work of establishing their own celebration seasons and persuading people to participate.

Everybody has the right to celebrate whatever they want during the Christmas season. But that's a different issue from claiming, as a right, that equal public acknowledgment must be accorded other traditions during the time of the year that was established specifically to celebrate Christmas.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 10, 2015:

Denise, thank you so much. I hope this is an encouragement for standing firm in our own faith, as well as allowing others to make their own choice.

Michaela from USA on December 10, 2015:

I never understood how people use XMAS as a secular term, since X is the Greek letter for Christ anyhow. So it really IS just a shortened spelling of the word Christmas.

I honestly don't think there's a war on Christmas - being inclusive of all the other winter holidays that are celebrated by Americans does not mean a person CAN'T celebrate Christmas. No one's stopping them, it's just that the rest of us want to see a little bit of representation of our traditions too, and not just Christmas stuff. Especially in public places, where that representation is so important for us to feel included in the festivities.

The only problem with that is a lot of right-wing nuts who ONLY want to see Christmas stuff and refuse to give in to other religions displaying their symbolism and traditions have made that difficult, so for many businesses the only way to be fair is to be secular and allow people to draw their own meaning from "seasonal" embellishments.

As a non-Christian, I would NEVER in a million years tell someone they can't have a Christmas tree or say Merry Christmas, but at the same time I shouldn't be hassled for calling my originally pagan tree a Holiday Tree or saying Happy Holidays. Because that's my personal choice.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on December 10, 2015:

Thank you for your very thoughtful and insightful truce. I think this is the first time I have seen both sides addressed and with such balanced understanding and truth. My faith and my celebration of Christ's birth are my own and not necessarily connected with parades and public lighting of iconic trees. You did a great job of reminding us that secularists can't stop our faith any more than Christians can shove Christ down the throats of those who don't believe. Thank you.

Blessings and Merry Christmas,


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 10, 2015:

Thank you, Helga. I think if believers themselves keep focused on what Christmas is really all about, and can sensitively share that perspective, as Charles Schultz did with Linus in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," people can be encouraged to see beyond the commercial XMAS.

Helga Silva from USA on December 10, 2015:

I have to admit that the meaning of Chrismas has changed so much recently. It became nothing but a retail holiday. I wish people opened up to the true meaning of Christmas.

Great hub!

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