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

Ron is the founding pastor of a church in Harrisburg, PA, and 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. 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.

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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, 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, 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

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