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10 minutes with Robby McGee

(RNS) Every December, Christmas culture warriors square off in town squares and school auditoriums over nativity scenes, Christmas carols and whether it’s politically correct to say “Merry Christmas.”
For Robby McGee, president of the Nashville-based evangelical group Reaching International, the strategic battleground is the shopping mall, where he believes too many retailers and restaurants eagerly capitalize on Christmas shoppers, but gloss over the reason for the season.

With ChristmasMerchants.com, McGee, 47, promotes a “nice” list of merchants who use “Merry Christmas” in their greetings and ads, a “naughty” list of those who don’t—which this year includes Banana Republic, Olive Garden and Walgreens, among others.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What distinguishes your group from others that also push for more Christmas displays and language in the public sphere?

A. Our site is intended to be more interactive in getting consumers involved in the process, to not only be informed but to hold retailers accountable when they intentionally decide to exclude the tradition of Christmas. Given a choice, I believe shoppers will choose to spend their hard-earned money with a business that acknowledges the reason they are celebrating.

Q. A recent poll found that Americans are about split over whether stores should say “Merry Christmas” or something like “Season’s Greetings.” Why do you think so many people, even Christians, would prefer for stores to say something other than “Merry Christmas?”

A. What Christians are split over is what greeting businesses should use out of respect for people of other faiths. But, I think you should ask how many Americans are offended if a business or employee wished them a “Merry Christmas.”

If 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, it seems hard to believe that they would be offended that a business greeted them with the name of the holiday they are celebrating.

Q. In addition to being more inclusive, doesn’t something like “Happy Holidays” make more sense commercially because it would include a longer time frame, including Advent and New Year’s Eve?

A. It would be hard to argue that trying to appease 4 percent who don’t celebrate Christmas makes more sense than marketing to the 96 percent who do. I would think stores would consider 96 percent to be a great inclusion ratio and it would make more commercial sense to use “Merry Christmas,” especially since they are trying to sell something. It would be good business to market to the people buying!

Having said that, I am not opposed to other greetings. Sometimes, I say, “Have a happy holiday.” But, I am opposed to the intentional exclusion of “Merry Christmas” and the prohibition some employers place upon their employees by not letting them wish customers a “Merry Christmas.”

Q. How has the “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” shift in stores and businesses affected you personally?

A: Any time a culture turns its back on traditions that helped make it great, it’s a detriment to the entire society. Although to me the main tradition of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, the other important part of the tradition of Christmas in America is the spirit of giving.

From my Christian perspective, if we turn our backs on Christ, we turn our back on the foundation that made our nation great. From a purely secular perspective, I believe that any society that turns its back on giving will cease to receive, and eventually to exist.

Q. Do you feel that yours and similar efforts are making a difference?

A. The trend has been that we’re afraid of offending people if we talk about Christmas, but I think the trend is reversing. Christmas isn’t about you having to embrace Jesus as the messiah—it’s about recognizing his birthday, regardless of how you feel about him.

You’re not required to embrace Valentine’s Day, but it would be crazy to say that it doesn’t exist and that we shouldn’t celebrate it and that stores can’t advertise it. You don’t have to celebrate it if you don’t want to, but let everyone else enjoy telling their loved ones “Happy Valentine’s Day.”