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Controversy has arisen regarding the celebration, recognition, legitimization, or acknowledgment of the Christmas holiday (or lack thereof) in government, media, advertising, retail, and various secular and religious environments throughout the holiday's history.
In the 17th century, the Puritans had laws forbidding the celebration of Christmas, unlike the Catholic Church or the Anglican Church, the latter of which they separated from. With the atheistic Cult of Reason in power during the era of Revolutionary France, Christian Christmas religious services were banned and the three kings cake was forcibly renamed the "equality cake" under anticlerical government policies. Later, in the 20th century, Christmas celebrations were prohibited under doctrine of the state atheism in the Soviet Union. In the USSR, the League of Militant Atheists encouraged school pupils to campaign against Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, and encouraged them to spit on crucifixes as protest against this holiday; the League established an antireligious holiday to be the 31st of each month as a replacement. Likewise, in Nazi Germany, "because Nazi ideologues saw organized religion as an enemy of the totalitarian state, propagandists sought to deemphasize—or eliminate altogether—the Christian aspects of the holiday" and as a result "propagandists tirelessly promoted numerous Nazified Christmas songs, which replaced Christian themes with the regime's racial ideologies."
Modern-day controversy, often associated with use of the term "war on Christmas", occurs mainly in countries such as the United States, Canada, and to a much lesser extent the United Kingdom. This often involves objections to government or corporate avoidance of the day's association with Christianity in efforts to be multiculturally sensitive. In some cases, popular aspects of Christmas, such as Christmas trees, lights, and decorating are still prominently showcased, but are associated with unspecified "holidays" rather than with Christmas. The controversy also includes objections to policies that prohibit government or schools from forcing unwilling participants to take part in Christmas ceremonies. In other cases, the Christmas tree, as well as Nativity scenes, have not been permitted to be displayed in public settings altogether. Also, several US chain retailers, such as Walmart, Macy's, and Sears, have experimented with greeting their customers with "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" rather than with "Merry Christmas". Some opponents have denounced the generic term "Holidays" and avoidance of using the term "Christmas" as being politically correct.
- The Sears Holdings Corporation (which owns Sears and Kmart) altered their marketing policies from using the term "holiday" to using the term "Christmas". The change of policy included the distribution of "Merry Christmas" signs to stores nationwide, and the changing of the term "holiday" to "Christmas" on their website and in stores.
- In 2005, Walmart was criticized by the Catholic League for avoiding the word "Christmas" in any of their marketing efforts. The company had downplayed the term "Christmas" in much of its advertising for several years. This caused some backlash among the public, prompting some groups to pass around petitions and threaten boycotts against the company, as well as several other prominent retailers that practiced similar obscurations of the holiday. In 2006, in response to the public outcry, Wal-Mart announced that they were amending their policy and would be using "Christmas" rather than "holiday". Among the changes, they noted that the former "Holiday Shop" would become the "Christmas Shop", and that there would be a "countin' down the days to Christmas" feature.
- In 2005, Target Corporation was criticized by the American Family Association for their decision not to use the term "Christmas" in any of their in-store, online, or print advertising. The AFA initiated a nationwide boycott of the Target Corporation, resulting in over 700,000 petition signatures. Within a week of initiating the boycott, the AFA received an official letter from Target which indicated that they would begin incorporating the term "Christmas" in their advertising: "Over the course of the next few weeks, our advertising, marketing and merchandising will become more specific to the holiday that is approaching—referring directly to holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. For example, you will see reference to Christmas in select television commercials, circulars and in-store signage."
- When it was revealed in November 2006 that Wal-Mart would be using the term "Christmas" in their advertising campaign, an article about the issue initiated by USA Today pointed out that Best Buy Corporation would be among the retailers that would not be using "Christmas" at all in their advertising that year. Dawn Bryant, a Best Buy spokeswoman, stated: "We are going to continue to use the term holiday because there are several holidays throughout that time period, and we certainly need to be respectful of all of them." The AFA launched a campaign against Best Buy's policy. In reaction to the same policy, the Catholic League placed Best Buy on its 2006 Christmas Watch List.
- In 2005, despite other promotional material using the term "Christmas trees", an Austin, Texas location of the U.S. hardware retailer Lowe's used the term "Holiday tree" on a bilingual banner advertising its Christmas trees. However, the Spanish text underneath it inconsistently used the term "árboles de Navidad", which translates to "Christmas trees". Following complaints by the AFA, the company stated that it would remove the offending banners, and that "to ensure consistency of our message and to avoid confusion among our customers, we are now referring to the trees only as 'Christmas Trees.'" In 2007, the AFA complained that the chain's holiday catalog contained references to the term "Family trees" instead of "Christmas trees", despite all other promotional material using the term "Christmas tree". Lowe's admitted that the usage of "Family trees" was a proofreading error that had not been caught before the catalog was published.
- In late October 2008, U.S. hardware retailer The Home Depot was criticized by the AFA for using terms such as "holiday" and "Hanukkah" on their website, but avoiding the term "Christmas". The retailer responded by saying they will be adjusting their website to make references to Christmas more prominent. It was later claimed by Snopes.com that the AFA's characterization of Home Depot's advertising was false, as the retailer's advertising had initially included several references to the word "Christmas".
- On 11 November 2009, the AFA called for a "limited two-month boycott" of Gap, Inc over what they claimed was the "company's censorship of the word 'Christmas.'" In an advertising campaign launched by Gap on 12 November, the term "Christmas" was both spoken and printed on their website at least once, and a television ad entitled "Go Ho Ho" featured lyrics such as "Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go Kwanzaa, Go Solstice" and "whatever holiday you Wanna-kah". On 17 November, AFA responded to this campaign by condemning the ads for references to the "pagan holiday" of solstice, and declined to call off the boycott. On 24 November, the AFA ended the boycott, after learning from Gap's corporate vice president of communications that the company planned to launch a new commercial with a "very strong Christmas theme".
- On 24 November 2010, the branch manager of Chase Bank in Southlake, Texas told Antonio Morales that a Christmas tree he had donated to the branch had to be taken down per JPMorgan Chase's policy to use only decorations supplied by the company. Bank spokesperson Greg Hassell stated that the company-provided decorations are designed to be "something everyone is comfortable with, regardless of how they celebrate the season."
- Also in 2010, Wachovia Bank was briefly rumored to have banned Christmas trees from its local branches in favor of poinsettias. In response to complaints, the company affirmed that Christmas trees were permitted to be displayed and decorated by branch employees.
- In November 2010, the word "Christmas" on two signs at Philadelphia's Christmas Village was removed by the organizers after complaints, but restored three days later after the mayor intervened.
- According to NetEase, on the Christmas Day of 2014, a "Boycotting Christmas" campaign launched in downtown Changsha, Hunan Province, China. Also in 2014, Northwest University closed the campus completely on the Christmas Eve, and all of the requests for leave were rejected by the school officials.
- In November 2015, the coffee shop chain Starbucks introduced Christmas-themed cups colored in solid red and containing no ornamentation besides the Starbucks logo, contrasting previous designs which featured winter-related imagery, and non-religious Christmas symbols such as reindeer and ornaments. On 5 November, a video was posted on Facebook by evangelist and self-proclaimed "social media personality" Joshua Feuerstein, in which he accused Starbucks of "hating Jesus" by removing Christmas-oriented imagery from the cup, followed by him "tricking" a barista into writing "Merry Christmas" on the cup, and encouraging others to do the same. The video became a viral video, spurring discussions and commentary: businessman and Republican 2016 president-elect Donald Trump supported Feuerstein's claim by suggesting a boycott of Starbucks, stating that "If I become president, we're all going to be saying 'Merry Christmas' again." Many social media users, including other Christians, perceived the criticism to be an overreaction.
Greenberg, David (15 December 2006). "A Very Ecumenical Christmas: Why conservatives despise the phrase happy holidays". Slate.
Henderson, Mary Anne; Platt, Brian (23 December 2015). "The War on Christmas, or How to Build Mass Support for Right-Wing Ideology". Counter Punch.
Keillor, Garrison (19 December 2007). "All I need for Christmas". Salon.
Lipka, Michael (12 December 2013). "‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’?". Pew Research Center.
Peabody, Michael (5 December 2007). "Gear Up, Kids! It’s Time for the Annual War on Christmas". Spectrum.
Richardson, Rachel (22 December 2016). "Merry Christmas, Oregon! Happy Holidays, Maine! America divides over holiday greetings". UC Magazine. University of Cincinnati.
Stack, Liam (19 December 2016). "How the ‘War on Christmas’ Controversy Was Created". The New York Times.
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