Ashley Tarter, a 32-year-old James City County resident, was buying Christmas gifts last year when she found something amiss.
“I was shopping in every store, and no one wished me a Merry Christmas,” Tarter recalled. Instead, store clerks and cashiers were greeting her with “Happy Holidays” and other generic seasonal hellos.
Today, Tarter stands determined to save “Merry Christmas” â€” and, she said, Christmas itself in a sense â€” through a campaign of subtle but colorful buttons.
It all began when Tarter mentioned to her husband over dinner that December she wished she could wear a sign that broadcast her desire for others to wish her “Merry Christmas.” After a bit of online research, Tarter found a wholesale button maker â€” and the “Wish Me a Merry Christmas” movement was born.
But her campaign won’t rest with just local awareness. Should Tarter sell a million pins, she plans to contact top U.S. retailers to demand that their employees say, “Merry Christmas,” to shoppers.
Tarter planned to sell only to churches for give-aways or fundraisers, but demand was so high, individuals can now buy the ornament-shaped badges, she said.
It’s not just the greeting that Tarter wants changed. She wants store displays to be religious-themed, with less of a focus on winter and Santa Claus. Music should be all Christmas carols â€” no “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Jingle Bell Rock.” And the carols’ instrumental versions don’t count.
Since starting her Web site in July, Tarter has sold tens of thousands of $1.50 buttons, she said, with more orders coming in every day from Hampton Roads to Alaska. The money collected will be used for campaign purposes, such as marketing, travel costs to secure corporate commitments and possible legal expenses, Tarter said.
The initial success doesn’t surprise Tarter, who said people constantly underestimated what the Christian community could do.
“When Christians work to change the culture, that impact can be powerful,” Tarter said.
Regarding the likelihood of real change, she said, “If attention and slogans didn’t have the power to change retailers’ decisions, the stores wouldn’t look the way they do,” referring to what Tarter sees as the business community’s secularization.
The decline of “Merry Christmas” and what some people have called the war on Christmas have been annual talking points in recent years, led by conservative television and radio personalities who see America’s secular left as removing the true origins of the holiday â€” the birth of Jesus Christ â€” from Christmas in an over-reaching grab at political correctness. But national chains, government centers and other public gathering places have openly struggled to include citizens and shoppers who don’t celebrate the holiday.
Tarter doesn’t buy it. She cites a study commissioned a few years ago by the Fox News Channel that said 96 percent of Americans celebrated Christmas.
“Christmas is what it is, and people shouldn’t be offended that Christians are celebrating our holiday,” Tarter said. “For me, personally, you know what â€” if I’m spending all this money on Christmas, it’s actually offensive not to wish me a Merry Christmas.”
So can a mass movement of button wearers make a difference? Unlikely, according to local retailers and store managers. Susan Milhoan, president and CEO of the Norfolk-based Retail Alliance, a regionwide trade group, acknowledged that some retailers encouraged their employees to be as inclusive as possible to all shoppers. She said Tarter’s campaign “flies in the face of freedom of speech.”
Milhoan compared the effort to actions by public-smoking advocates. “When do individual rights and desires become more important than those of the society?” she asked.
One Hampton businessman has long balanced the religious with the secular. Mike Monteith, owner of Mike’s Surf Shop and a member of the Retail Alliance, keeps by his register a Surfer’s Bible. In it, the New Testament is combined with testimonies from pro surfers and skaters. Monteith also opens his indoor skate for free only once a week â€” for a devotional skate on Sundays. Posters advertising the event are on the front door and walls.
During the Christmas season, Monteith lets his workers greet customers however they please.
“I personally almost always, I think, say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ but I don’t have a stated policy,” Monteith said.
A handful of area churches have bought boxes of buttons. John Gray Sr., pastor at Williamsburg’s Bethel Restoration Center, has about 300 buttons sitting in his office that he plans to give to parishioners after Thanksgiving.
More people need to start feeling good about saying, “Merry Christmas,” to each other, Gray said. But he also said the meaning behind those words surpassed the Dec. 25 holiday.
“Christmas has a religious overtone, but I think it’s bigger than religion,” Gray said. “It speaks to family, coming together, giving to people less fortunate. Whether it’s applicable to Christ or not, it’s a time to give of yourself. I think it’s OK to express the sentiments of your heart and to not be afraid to say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ to somebody.”