RALEIGH, N.C. — 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: