Happy holidays! Merry Christmas!
They may sound like simple salutations, but they have become opposing battle cries in a wintry culture war -- with conservative Christian groups going up against retailers, municipalities and even the White House.
If you receive a card from President and Mrs. Bush this season, you will find the first dogs sitting in snow, a scripture from the book of Psalms and "Best wishes for a holiday season of hope and happiness."
And to some, that is pure blasphemy, because nowhere does it mention the word "Christmas."
"When I got the card from President Bush, it didn't mean that much to me," said Catholic League president Bill Donohue. "I figured that's what most presidents did. Then I found that I was wrong. Everybody from F.D.R. to Bush's father had at least one card every year while they were in office that said Merry Christmas."
The so-called "war for Christmas" is actually thousands of years old because 'tis the season of mixed messages.
Evergreen trees, candles and gift-giving were all part of a pagan winter ritual hundreds of years before Jesus was even born. The Christ child and St. Nicholas joined party in the 4th century. Jewish Hanukah and African Kwanzaa emerged in America in the 20th.
But any effort to be all-inclusive by referring to the "holidays" has riled those anxious to keep Christ at the center of the season and even sparked political battles.
A spruce on Capitol Hill is a Christmas tree once again, losing its "holiday" title thanks to the effort of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
After Target opted for generic holiday advertising, a conservative Christian group threatened the retailer with a boycott 700,000 strong. Target's new campaign now includes the word "Christmas."
An Ohio couple says they've sold almost 15,000 "Just say Merry Christmas" bracelets.
Donohue said he wants to know why people insist on "neutering" the holidays.
"Elvis didn't sing about 'Blue Holiday,' " he said. "Nobody says 'I'll be home for the holiday.' It's, 'I'll be home for Christmas.' If you can't say Christmas at Christmas time, when 85 percent of the population is Christian and 96 percent of the population celebrates Christmas, something's wrong."
In Phoenix, the sheriff has ordered Christmas music to play throughout the county jail all day long -- hymns and carols -- and for agnostics he says he'll mix in the singing Chipmunks.
"We can't say 'Merry Christmas' in the U.S., in the world anymore," said Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz. "What are we coming to? I am saying it. I am singing it. It's gonna be in this jail, and that's the way the ball bounces."
'Political Correctness Run Amok'
Perhaps people who are offended by the use of the Christmas have "drunk too much from the multicultural well" and are victims of "political correctness run amok," said Donohue.
There are two ways to deal with the problem, he added.
"You can educate the people that object to 'merry Christmas,' or you can veto the use of the term," he said. "I want to educate the bigots."
A lot of people who are afraid to say merry Christmas are actually Christians who don't want to offend people, Donohue said.
"On Thursday, I'm going to be with Jackie Mason and we're going to take a Hummer, go down Fifth Avenue and have press conference about Jews saying, 'It's okay to say merry Christmas. All my Jewish friends say it's okay to say merry Christmas.' "
But for those who are still worried about offending people, Donohue has a solution.
"I think we can say, 'Merry Christmas and have a happy New Year,' " he said. "That covers it both."