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Whose holy day?

'TIS THE season of holiday hysteria. The cold, crisp air is full of blustery debates about holiday politics.

Mayor Menino got a swift kick in the holiday lexicon because a city press release referred to the tree placed on the Common as a ''holiday tree." A nonprofit group called Liberty Counsel in Orlando objected, and, as the group tells the tale on its website, ''after pressure from Liberty Counsel, the City agreed to call the tree a 'Christmas tree.' " Confronting Boston is part of the Liberty Counsel's national ''Friend or Foe" Christmas campaign, an effort supported by the Rev. Jerry Falwell to stamp out perceived religious discrimination.

Retail stores seem wary of the controversy: They throw snowflakes, ornaments, and red ribbons around their stores and websites, while letting proper names like Christmas and Hanukkah lurk in the background.

Fox news anchor John Gibson wraps the controversy up in a bright red alarmist package with his book ''The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought."

The public needs a thicker holiday season skin, as well as the courage to call holidays by their proper names, the courtesy to respect holiday atheists, and the wisdom to sidestep the hype of holiday hollering.

As for a war on Christmas -- it's over. Retailers won a long time ago: the signature activity of the season is shopping. People still buy fat shopping bags full of gifts no matter how many times they've heard Linus explain the meaning of Christmas to Charlie Brown.

The melting pot also won. Christmas is a patchwork holiday that earned disapproval from the Puritans. The holiday got an assist from Dutch settlers in the New World who celebrated Saint Nicholas, shortened in Dutch to ''Sinter Klaas."

After Clement Clarke Moore wrote his classic poem about the night before Christmas and illustrator Thomas Nast drew a merry, chubby guy in a red suit, the country had a manufactured holiday hero. Now Christmas has general kitsch appeal and plenty of celebrants who aren't Christian.

But here's why Christmas, Hanukkah, and other winter celebrations are good in their many guises and should be free of political fear-mongering: They throw light into the darkness. Whether it's winter darkness, dark souls, or a dark despair that seems to promise a bitter, unending winter, lighting a candle -- real or metaphoric -- makes a difference. Americans are too busy lighting up holiday season cash registers, but some people do take up the real work of winter: spreading warmth, however one defines that word.

So call off the war and send the lawyers home. Christmas isn't a victim. It's a vigorously healthy annual possibility.

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