KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Christian Examiner) – Feel free to wish your colleagues and students "Merry Christmas," unless you're on the campus of the University of Tennessee – or even the once conservative University of Mississippi. That's because both schools have recently taken steps to tamp down the celebration of the Christian holiday.
Several news sources, including The Daily Telegraph and the Christian Science Monitor, reported last week that the University of Tennessee's Office of Diversity and Inclusion had posted a ten-point plan on its website to ensure any holiday party on campus was "not a Christmas party in disguise."
The plan, the Telegraph said, stripped the party of traditional Christmas practices, "leaving behind a corporate shell." The paper also said the plan called for ensuring that Christmas cards sent off campus were strictly "non-denominational."
According to the paper, the plan also included ditching phrases like "Father Christmas" and "Secret Santa." The statement also said, "If you want to exchange gifts, then refer to it in a general way, such as a practical joke gift exchange or secret gift exchange."
The web link to the 10-point plan for holiday inclusiveness posted by the diversity office at UT has since been disabled, and the office has posted a generic statement about inclusiveness during the holidays.
"As we enter the holiday season, please be mindful of the rich diversity of our campus community. Recognizing a wide variety of cultures and beliefs, we should note that people choose to celebrate in different ways and on varying days of the year," the statement from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion now says.
"While there are many joyous occasions and special opportunities to gather, employee participation in any celebration should always be voluntary. While it is inevitable that differences will appear in how people celebrate, everyone is encouraged to have an open mind and to approach every situation with sensitivity."
The push to corral speech about Christmas on the campus has met with significant backlash. Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn fired off a tweet that told Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, whom she said "wants to take Christ out of Christmas because it might offend," to stop the madness and "step up, shape up, or step down."
Republican State Rep. Micah Van Huss [Johnson City] also proposed withdrawing state funding for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the campus, calling it "the Office of Political Correctness" instead. But he insisted his move was not only the result of the Christmastime controversy.
"My office began working on drafts of this legislation when the Office of Diversity proposed using gender-neutral pronouns earlier this summer," Van Huss told a local news channel.
"First, it was Sex Week, then the gender neutral pronouns, now these recommendations to ensure that 'holiday' parties have nothing to do with Christmas. What else has the Office of Diversity been doing with our tax dollars?"
Some students at the Tennessee school also protested by repainting a campus landmark (a giant boulder) white and adding the phrase, "All I want for Christmas is Jimmy Cheek's resignation." Several other students spray painted over the comment the following day.
Cheek issued a brief statement about the controversy Dec. 3 via a Facebook post. In it, he said:
"First let me say that we honor Christmas as one of the celebrations of the season. We are in no way trying to dismiss this very important Christian holiday. As a diverse campus, we do promote ways to be inclusive of all cultures and religions. I am disappointed that our efforts to be inclusive have been totally misconstrued."
A statement from the university's communications office also said numerous holiday parties had been held on the campus and they were not monitored by the administration.
"We honor Christmas as one of the celebrations of the season and the birth of Jesus, and the corresponding Christmas observance is one of the Christian holidays on our cultural and religious holidays calendar."
Campus Reform also reported a similar Christmas-cleansing project was underway at Ole Miss. According to the report, the University of Mississippi renamed its annual Christmas event from "A Grand Ole Christmas" to "Hotty Toddy Holiday."
Kayp Maye, co-director of special events for the Student Activities Association (SAA), told a campus television news station the SAA wanted to "change the atmosphere" from the previous year and attempt to bring in a "more mature audience."
But he also said, "'Grand Ole Christmas' connoted too much Christianity on campus and so we wanted to have a more inclusive environment for the holidays this year."
The moves by the universities in Tennessee and Mississippi are not unusual, and not at all uncommon in universities. The University of Missouri, for instance, offers accommodations for employees who want to celebrate holidays associated with Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but also those associated with Wicca, Shinto, Hinduism and paganism.
An article on the University of Illinois-Springfield's Diversity Center website claims:
"Guess who's not celebrating Christmas this year? Millions of people in the US. That's right. Tens of millions of Americans don't celebrate Christmas religiously, either as followers of non-Christian religions (Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews) or as individuals with no religious affiliation. Because many stores tap into the cash value of Christmas with their plethora of Santas, ornaments, and Christmas fanfare at your nearby mall, we can easily overlook the depth of the diversity present in America during this season."
The attempts to play down Christmas range from the serious to the bizarre. The Daily Caller reported that officials at Cornell University warned that Christmas decorations may evoke religion, and this year's effort at promoting diversity included banning nativity scenes, menorahs, angels, stars, crosses, the Star of David, and even Mistletoe.
Cornell officials said "Santa Claus" might be acceptable if approved by students after open and honest dialogue.