This year, as Christmas season swung into gear, Pastor Patrick Wooden’s followers fanned out to shopping malls across Raleigh to deliver a muscular message of holiday cheer: As Christian shoppers, they would like to be greeted with the phrase “Merry Christmas” -- not a bland “Happy Holidays” -- and stores that failed to do so would risk losing their business.
Nearly six weeks later, some citizens in Raleigh are seething over what they see as an attempt to force religion into the public square.
But others say “Merry Christmas” is rolling off their tongues more easily and more often than in previous years.
Conservative Christians nationwide have converged around the topic of Christmas, complaining that secularists and nonbelievers have tried to obliterate the holiday’s religious meaning.
In Oklahoma and Miami, local skirmishes have erupted over the display of nativity scenes on government property. A California man has called for a boycott of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s department stores, demanding the phrase “Merry Christmas” be used. In Denver, the mayor’s attempt to remove “Merry Christmas” from a light display raised such a howl of protest that he reversed his decision.
Here in Raleigh, the grass-roots campaigning has focused on retailers. And it’s been so invigorating that the church is making plans for next year, said Wooden, a barrel-chested former football player who leads a conservative black congregation of about 3,000.
“Our position is: If they want the gold, frankincense and myrrh, they should acknowledge the birth of the child,” said Wooden, pastor of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ.
Conservative Americans feel ready to push back against “the secularists or the humanists or the elitists” who dominate popular culture, said the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, which is based in Raleigh.
“It’s a cultural war. We are in the thick of it,” Creech said. “It’s not so much an attack on us. It’s an attack on Christ.”
Throughout history, religious people have fretted over the holiday’s secular aspects, said Penne Restad, a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Christmas in America: A History.”
Created by the Roman Catholic Church in the 4th century, the celebration of the nativity coincided with pre-Christian feasts, allowing observant Christians to “then go out the door and participate in Saturnalia,” Restad said.
In pre-Colonial days, English authorities looked on the holiday as a riot of drunkenness and hooliganism. American Puritans rejected it completely, preferring to get up and go to work. Not until the 1820s and ‘30s, with the holiday “getting rowdier and rowdier and more destructive,” did Americans redefine it as a safe and private family time, Restad said -- the “old-fashioned Christmas” celebrated in carols and Currier & Ives prints.
Karal Ann Marling, author of “Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday,” called complaints about secularization “complete and utter bunk.”
“If you think Christmas meant the baby Jesus in the past, it didn’t,” said Marling, a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota.
Still, the last 20 years have seen a corporate trend toward generic holiday celebrations -- brought about not through the law, since private businesses are free to decorate as they like, but by a desire not to offend, a retail expert said.
At Cary Towne Center, a mall just outside Raleigh, displays featured azure and white artificial trees, massive suspended ornaments and flakes of iridescent plastic which, from a distance, bore a resemblance to snow.
Heather Vandeusen, manager at the Body Shop, which sells skin-care products, said off-site managers train her staff to say “Happy Holidays.”
“If my corporate allowed it, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” said Vandeusen, 20. “I still say ‘Merry Christmas,’ personally.”
A major shift took place in the 1990s, when corporations became sensitive to complaints of customers on both ends of the political spectrum, said Russell Sway, international president of the Institute of Store Planners, an Atlanta-based association of design and merchandising specialists.
“On the one hand, you have a board of directors who’s yelling at you for doing anything that offends anyone. On the other hand, you have this group that’s yelling at you for commercializing a religious holiday,” Sway said.
Wooden and his congregation -- whose church building has a cherry-red “Merry Christmas” banner hanging across its front like a political slogan -- aim to push back against that spirit of caution.
On the day after Thanksgiving, the church ran a full-page advertisement in the Raleigh News and Observer, urging Christians to “spend their hard-earned dollars with merchants who include the greeting Merry Christmas.”
Over the next week, the paper ran a series of passionate letters, many critical of the advertisement:
“What happened to the land that my parents, Eastern European immigrants, adopted as their beloved country -- a country of fairness and tolerance?” wrote Harriet Lasher.
An Episcopal priest wrote to compare the campaign to the Nazi policy requiring Jews to identify themselves with yellow stars.
Judah Segal, executive director of the Raleigh-Cary Jewish Federation, said he was not disturbed by the advertisement, and hoped it was intended to “remind Christians that there is an essence to the holiday,” not to shut out others.
“We really respect and admire people who want to have religious content in their own holiday,” he said.
Wooden, 43, considers the campaign such a success that he has already set aside money in the church budget -- full-page ads cost about $7,600 -- to buy a similar advertisement next year. Fresh off the fierce debate over same-sex marriage, which he opposes, he says condemnation from the left does not trouble him. On the contrary, he said: “It seems to me the greater the persecution, the stronger the church.”
As far as complaints from people of other religions go, Wooden looks at it this way: An ice-cream vendor doesn’t have to like every flavor he sells.
“There’s one group of people who get bullied all the time, and that’s Christians,” he said. “I know what it is like to be bullied. It is apartheid in reverse -- the majority is being bullied by the minority.”
Little has changed at Cary Towne Center, where Wooden’s members delivered letters in late October: Festoons of tiny lights twinkle from the ceiling, garlands of artificial pine deck the halls, and the word “Christmas” is hard to find. Phyllis Maultsby, who owns the shop Light Years Jewelry, said pressure would not change her holiday decorating choices.
“I’m not going to be influenced, because we embrace diversity,” Maultsby said. “I certainly would never want to feel like I was being bullied.”
But some retailers say they’re behaving a little differently this season.
Kevin Coggins, who owns a bicycle shop called Spin Cycle in Cary, said he finds it easier -- more comfortable -- to wish people a “Merry Christmas” this year, as if after years of careful “Happy Holidays,” he had suddenly been given permission.
“I think the Christians are out of the closet,” Coggins said.
Ed Jones, president of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Assn., agreed. This Christmas, he is more conscious than ever of “a conspiracy of leftist-leaning people that want to bring down traditional values in our country,” he said.
“I don’t see anything to gain by offending others, but many of us are offended ourselves,” said Jones, who owns a remodeling business. “I think we -- the collective we -- are allowing a small minority of people to rule our lives. I’m opposed to that.”
His wife bought cards that read “Happy Holidays” this year, Jones said, but he was careful to ink “Merry Christmas” onto every one of them.
Times staff researcher Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.