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Why do retailers fear using the word ‘Christmas’?

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the fall 2008 edition of "FYI Alexandria," which the city bills as "Alexandria's Official Resident Newsletter," a front-page blurb announced: "City Seeks 2008 Holiday Tree."

Alexandria at the time was "seeking the donation of a Colorado Blue Spruce ... or other well-formed 25- to 35-foot evergreen tree."

"The Holiday Tree will be decorated and displayed throughout the holiday season," the newsletter noted, adding that it would be lighted during the city's annual tree-lighting ceremony on Market Square.

Given that it was politically correct Alexandria, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the city arborist - ironically, named John Noelle - wouldn't call it what it is, a Christmas tree; after all, the only other "holiday" involving trees is Arbor Day, and that's celebrated on the last Friday in April.

And with the holiday that dare not speak its name almost upon us, nowhere is that phenomenon more noticeable, or more indefensible, than in the advertising sales circulars of the national retail chains that come by the dozen in newspapers, especially on Sundays.

A review of those sales brochures from the day after Thanksgiving - aka Black Friday - through this past Sunday, shows that among major retail chains, only Kohl's and Rite-Aid have used the word "Christmas" regularly and prominently in their advertising.

Beginning with Black Friday, so named because it's supposedly the day on which retailers finally make it into the black for the year, retailers' sales brochures have been bedecked with Christmas iconography - red ribbons and bows, tree ornaments, strings of lights, mistletoe and holly, Santas and the like - but with few exceptions (given due credit below), none have had banner headlines proclaiming Christmas as the reason for the buying season they were so desperately encouraging.

At J.C. Penney, it was an "After Thanksgiving furniture and mattress sale," Sears touted a catchall "Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving sale," and at Lowe's, the home-repair and hardware chain, it was "Let's Holiday" - as if holiday were a verb. Office Depot similarly turned "gift" into a verb: "Gift smarter. The holiday gifts they really want." Not to be outdone, Old Navy proclaimed an "Extravaganza humongous honkin' 3-day BIG weekend sale."

The next day, Kohl's broke the silence with its "Christmas Super Saturday." Five days after that, Kohl's touted an "Incredible Christmas 2-Day Sale," and has continued to use the word unabashedly since then.

On Sunday, Nov. 30, it was business as usual for the rest of the pack. Macy's announced its "The More the Merrier Sale" - "merry," as in, well, you know. Circuit City boasted of having "The Most Wanted Gifts of the Season" (what season, it doesn't say). Toys R Us claimed to have "The Lowest Prices of the Season" (ditto). The Sports Authority: "Only 25 Shopping Days left" ('til what?); By contrast, Kohl's again proclaimed a "Christmas Countdown Sale."

On Sunday, Dec. 7, it was more of the same. At A.C. Moore, it was "Unwrap the Savings." At Total Wine & More: "Celebrate the savings" (followed, in smaller type, by: "on wine & beer," no less). At Macy's, a seated Santa was going through a stack of wish-list letters for its "Gift List Sale." Rite-Aid stood alone that day by offering "Christmas savings" (repeated three days later) and urging "Let Your Christmas Spirit Show." On Dec. 10, Target took a one-time plunge with a single-page ad: "There's no place like Target at Christmas to save."

Sunday, Dec. 14, was no better, with Kohl's and Rite-Aid again the sole standouts. Retailing may be a monkey-see-monkey-do business, but this is one instance in which their competitors - from Kmart and Bloomingdale's to CVS and Walgreens - have not followed suit.

The final Sunday of the season, Dec. 21, saw lots of "last minute deals" (Modell's sporting goods, Radio Shack), "last second gifts" (Five Below), and other variants on time running out - "Last 4 days to save" (A.C. Moore), "4 days of deals" (Target), "4 days only" (Sports Authority), "4 days left to shop" (Office Depot) and "Countdown sale" (Macy's) - but only Kohl's acknowledged the obvious, with its "4-Day Countdown to Christmas sale."

Kohl's also has used the word "Christmas" on TV, touting its "Biggest Christmas sale." (On TV, Wal-Mart has advertised itself as the place "Where Christmas costs less," but not in its newspaper ads.)

Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of the Christmas censorship, however, occurred online, at Amazon.com. Mark Steyn, writing at National Review Online, reported that instead of a "Twelve Days of Christmas" sale, Amazon is having a "Twelve Days of Holiday" sale. And when a customer wrote in to complain about omitting the word "Christmas," Amazon, incredibly, sent out a canned apology for using the word "Christmas" elsewhere on its Web site. It read: "Please accept our sincere apologies if you were offended by the use of the word "Christmas" on our [Web site]. Our intention in referring to Christmas is to give specific ordering guidance for a specific holiday, not to exclude other faiths."

But what Amazon and all these brick-and-mortar merchants don't seem to understand is, in shunning the word "Christmas," supposedly in order not to risk "offending" the at-most 10 percent of the population who are not Christians or don't celebrate the holiday, they give the back of their hand to the 90 percent or more who are and do.

A former Jewish colleague, moreover, noted that Hanukkah is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, and not particularly a gift-giving occasion, so what other "holiday" are these reticent retailers referring to anyway with their "holiday sales"? The winter solstice? Boxing Day? Festivus?

Making it all the more inexplicable, radio stations across the country program Christmas music - some of them playing nothing but - for weeks leading up to Dec. 25, and seasonal classics like "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" draw large TV audiences every year at this time. So again I must ask: Who, exactly, do PC-whipped retailers think is being "offended" (other than the usual ACLU types, who have made taking offense their raison d'etre) and why do their marketing and advertising departments insist on being Grinches?

Kohl's and Rite-Aid deserve praise - and our patronage - for not following the retail pack mentality. If enough of us vote with our wallets in our last-minute shopping today and tomorrow, and let their staffs know why we're there this Christmas season, perhaps the others will get the message, and put Christmas back in their "holiday" sales next year.

• Peter J. Parisi, an editor at The Washington Times, can be reached at pparisi@wash ingtontimes.com.