'Merry Christmas' -- or else 

click to enlarge Father Christmas: Pastor Jim Hagan had an epiphany 10 - years ago, and his idea has since spread nationwide. - COLLAN FITZPATRICK
  • Collan Fitzpatrick
  • Father Christmas: Pastor Jim Hagan had an epiphany 10 years ago, and his idea has since spread nationwide.

All the great social movements of our time, it seems, start right here in Colorado Springs. The campaign to ban gays and lesbians from seeking legal protection. The battle to eradicate all taxes. The crusade to pray to Jesus in a football locker room.

The latest, of course, is the war over Christmas, an idea that actually was born at the Chapel Hills Mall in Colorado Springs 10 years ago. That's when Pastor Jim Hagan of Friendship Assembly of God Church went shopping and had an epiphany. The red and green decorations were everywhere, but Hagan got upset when store clerks did not respond in kind to his wish of "Merry Christmas."

So Hagan took out a quarter-page advertisement in the Gazette. The message was clear: If companies and shop owners didn't clean up their act, Hagan promised, they would be faced with a boycott.

"We will be monitoring," warned the ad. "Should we, who consider ourselves Christians, spend our money at places that feel 'Christmas' is offensive? Aren't those retail stores offending us -- the majority -- by promoting Christmas spending but denying the origin and reason for Christmas ... Christ?

"After 2,000 years, have we still not found room for Him at the inn?"

The local shopping boycott never really panned out. At the time, the Rev. Stephen Todd, then the president of the Colorado Springs Association of Evangelicals, shared his take. "With all the culture wars to fight about, that would be one I would probably be a conscientious objector to," he said. "That's just not a hill I would choose to die on."

Flash forward 10 years. Hagan truly has established himself as a man ahead of his time. The "Say 'Merry Christmas' or else" crowd has grown into a national, litigious army. "I did, at least, see it on the horizon," says Hagan, modestly. "I was thinking about rerunning my ad [this year], and saying 'Remember 1995? Is this prophetic, or what?'"

This year, the very famous Rev. Jerry Falwell launched his "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," urging pastors across the country to buy full-page ads in their community newspapers announcing that "Christmas is still legal." Falwell also has a battalion of 750 lawyers, ready to provide free assistance to those who are facing persecution.

Meanwhile, the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association is calling for boycotts of stores that refuse to properly recognize that Jesus is the reason.

Not to be outdone, the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal firm founded in part by Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family president James Dobson, has announced its own campaign -- and even trademarked it. The Christmas Project' has a slogan: "Merry Christmas. It's okay to say it," and has 800 lawyers at the ready to go after anyone who challenges the rights to "sing Christmas carols at school," "pass out candy canes to classmates," "call it 'Christmas vacation,'" "sponsor a nativity scene on public property" and, of course, "say 'Merry Christmas.'"

Unconfirmed tales of egregious infractions abound: children in Plano, Texas ordered not to wear the colors green and red to school; children in Seattle having their lunch menus reprinted to read "Happy Holidays," school officials in Dodgeville, Wis., altering the carol "Silent Night" to be sung as "Cold in the Night."

The governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue, became an instant hero when he announced that he would be lighting a "Christmas" -- not "holiday" -- tree. And George W. Bush got a knuckle sandwich for sending out White House cards that read, "Happy Holidays."

Here in Colorado Springs, newly elected School District 49 board member Anna Bartha established her focus-on-education creds by introducing an edict to change "winter break" to "Christmas break." Glad to hear things are so rosy in D-49 that the biggest issue is semantics.

There still are some voices of reason. In a recent letter to the Gazette, Father Bill Carmody of Holy Family Catholic Church pointed out that saying "Happy Holidays" is not all that bad. After all, the word "Holiday" is a derivative of "Holy Day," and thus, should not be uttered lightly.

And then there is the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In an open letter to Falwell, Lynn this month made a startling announcement: "There is no 'war on Christmas!'"

"Even as I write this, millions of Americans are erecting Christmas trees and nativity scenes at their homes, and thousands of churches are planning special Christmas services," Lynn wrote.

"I am deeply disappointed that you have chosen a time that Christians observe as a season of peace and good will and turned it into a time of religious divisiveness and community conflict. Your 'Friend or Foe' campaign may be great for fundraising and publicity, but it has sown discord unnecessarily."

Lynn goes on to point out how, after he debated Falwell on Fox News Channel's "O'Reilly Factor," Lynn received dozens of nasty e-mails, including the following message: "Hope you die soon. Merry Christmas."

And it all started right here, at the Chapel Hills Mall in li'l old Colorado Springs.

Kinda makes ya weepy thinking about it.

-- degette@csindy.com

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