Keeping Christ in Christmas

LYNNFIELD -- The Coalition to Save Christmas in Massachusetts is showing stores they can’t expect to muzzle Christian expression and still rake in profits from Christmas shoppers.

The national attention they’ve raised has amazed its founders -- three North Shore men who began this effort in early November with a $5-a-month Web site.

The coalition is the brainchild of brothers Robert and Kevin Marley and their friend Steven Ciambelli, Lynnfield real estate developers. The three were boyhood pals growing up in Revere and still call St. Anthony of Padua Parish their home base.

“We just decided, enough is enough. It’s gone beyond ludicrous with the ‘Happy Holidays,’” Robert Marley said in a phone interview.

The trio’s Web site explains: “We want ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy Hanukkah’ and ‘Happy Kwanzaa’ restored in the malls and stores that would have our money. We’d like to invite all to participate and show support for this cause because all religions are under attack by the secular movement.”

Their solution is simple: just don’t shop in stores that prohibit the expression of the holy days and holidays we celebrate in December. They also plan peaceful pickets at retailers they call “Scrooge stores,” those who force their employees into a generic-holiday straightjacket.

Judging from their results in three short weeks, it’s a message that resonates.

The national Fox News Channel was to tape an interview with them Nov. 27. They will also be on Sirius Satellite Radio with talk show host Jay Thomas, and on 50 radio stations across America through syndication.

They have fielded hundreds of calls and e-mails from fed-up individuals and curious media outlets nationwide since the Boston Herald and WCVB Channel 5 ran the story Nov. 6. The Boston-based advocacy group Catholic Citizenship publicized the news via e-mail, and responses poured in.

Philanthropist and real estate developer Thomas J. Flatley of Milton called to offer his help.

“I think they’re very courageous,” Flatley said in an interview with The Anchor, the newspaper of the Fall River Diocese. “I’d be thrilled to have my name affiliated with anything that has to do with Christ. Why do you think this country has never had a Stalin or a Mussolini? It’s fabulous that we have Christ in our lives -- most Americans do, but we don’t discriminate against those who don’t.”

It was seeing the public expression of Christmas all but outlawed that motivated the friends, who have put their private lives on hold for the cause. “We want our kids to be able to celebrate Christmas,” said Robert Marley, a 48-year-old father of four.

The trio recalled that Boston’s Christmas tree narrowly escaped being renamed a “holiday tree” last year. With their families, they discussed the time and effort this venture would take. Then they contacted the media and dove into what’s become known as the Christmas Wars.

“Help us thwart the imminent abolition of Christmas,” they urge on their Web site.

“I’m always telling my kids not to cave into peer pressure,” said Marley, who describes himself as a “field marshal type” organizer.

His marching orders to consumers: “Don’t sit back and complain. It takes five minutes. Pick up the phone, go online, find a company’s CEO and barrage him with e-mails.”

“This can’t be done by just three guys,” he said. “Forget politics. The entire Christian community is on the same page with this. People just have to stand up.”

Their Web site is straightforward. There’s an introduction, news updates, links to articles on Christmas traditions, and contact numbers.

“Shop away!” the coalition recommends on a page listing Christmas-friendly stores. “Scrooge” stores are on another page, and both lists are updated regularly as retailers take notice.

Originally all 15 Simon Malls in Massachusetts were possible picket sites. One by one, each shopping center that had not been Christmas-friendly has changed its policy.

Marketing Director Chris Bastien said Nov. 16 that at the Emerald Square Mall in North Attleborough, employees will be instructed to say “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.” Santa will deliver the dual message as well.

The same procedure is in place at the Cape Cod Mall in Hyannis, Marketing Director Adra Lynn said.

A picket planned for the Square One Mall in Saugus Nov. 25 was cancelled after mall management evidently got the message, Channel 5 news reported the morning after the coalition’s first public meeting in Lynnfield Nov. 15.

Marley said the other Simon Malls that have said they will definitely acknowledge Christmas expression are: Auburn Mall, Auburn; Copley Place, Boston; South Shore Plaza, Braintree, Northshore Mall, Peabody; Liberty Tree Mall, Danvers; Burlington Mall, Burlington; the Mall at Chestnut Hill and the Atrium Mall, both in Newton; Solomon Pond Mall, Marlborough; Arsenal Mall, Watertown; Greendale Mall, Worcester; and Wrentham Village Premium Outlets.

Individual retailers are another story. Marley said that Target and Sears have “Merry Christmas” signs up and Wal-Mart and Macy’s have “surrendered.”

However, Best Buy has banned the use of “Merry Christmas” in its advertising and the Mississippi-based American Family Association is urging a national boycott.

“Bed, Bath and Beyond hung up on us, and we got one big runaround from Toys ‘R Us,” he added. “They’re our next priority.”

“Our objective is not to reeducate America about why we celebrate Christmas or to diminish anybody else’s holiday,” he concluded. “We don’t offend anybody. We’re the core customer group, and the silent majority is silent no more. We won’t stop, but this has to be everybody’s effort.”