Merry Christmas ... happy holidays ... have a nice day.

Those have increasingly - and ridiculously - become fighting words in our blessed land of supposedly plenty of religious tolerance.

This contrived conflict has even crept into our newspaper's usually elevated letters to the editor.

So as a public service aimed at promoting a cease-fire in the alleged "War on Christmas," over the last three days this holiday shopper documented these parting words directed my way by a dozen workers in local stores.

Six said "Merry Christmas." Three said, "Happy holidays." Three said, "Have a nice day."

None seemed to intend any offense - or any religious, non-religious or political statement.

After all, saying "Merry Christmas" doesn't have to convey: "Accept Jesus as your lord and savior or suffer eternal damnation!"

Saying "happy holidays" or "have a nice day" doesn't have to convey: "Jesus is not the messiah!"

Unfortunately, too many overwrought Christmas-is-Christian purists now, in effect, shout: "The secular humanists are coming! The secular humanists are coming!"

And too many overwrought secular humanists have been arguing that their freedom of religion includes the freedom from being subjected to reminders, on government sites, that Christmas starts with "Christ."

But before buying the notion that humanist heathens have driven the still-most-celebrated holiday in our still mostly Christian nation into a ragged retreat from Jesus, look around.

There are still numerous Nativity scenes in our community and beyond.

Military action

OK, so two weeks ago, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation complained about a Nativity scene at the entrance to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter - and the Air Force quickly removed it.

The MRFF's Paul Loebe wrote in a statement: "It was very sectarian in nature and a direct violation of the U.S. Constitution as well as a blatant violation of Air Force Instruction 1-1, Section 2.11."

After the Air Force did as the MRFF insisted, its president, Mikey Weinstein, said, "To the Air Force's credit, it agreed with MRFF's arguments to remove the Nativity scene swiftly and apparently found this scene to be as much a violation of all the pertinent regulations and the United States Constitution as MRFF did."

Yet then, after some big shots decried the scene's ouster, base brass put it back on display - only this time in front of the chapel. That prompted this joint victory statement from Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and 5th District Rep. Mick Mulvaney:

"We are pleased the Nativity scene has been restored at Shaw Air Force Base. From the start, our offices have been in touch with Shaw officials expressing our concerns about this matter. We appreciate the Air Force for listening to our complaint, keeping the Nativity scene on base and moving it to the Chapel."

And we non-combatants in the War on, or for, Christmas would appreciate it if both sides in this silly scrap would hold their rhetorical fire.

Hey, this is still a free country where free people can still debate what "freedom of religion" really means. Thus, what Christmas really means to you is your business.

Meanwhile, the big business of Christmas is still booming - and is still inundated with religious references.

So if there's not enough religion in Christmas to suit you, add some of your own.

If you think there's too much, feel your freedom from religion to dismiss it.

Setting the mood

But if want to recapture what many Americans regard as the Christmas spirit, "It's a Wonderful Life" (the 1946 Frank Capra epic starring Jimmy Stewart as a man who learns why his life matters) at 8 tonight - Christmas Eve - on WCBD.

For this yuletide fan, however, TBS hits the annual spot with its 24-hour marathon, starting at 8 tonight, of "A Christmas Story" - a little boy's rollicking recollection of his fervent holiday wish for "an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle."

And while Christmas is a time of joy, as Ralphie (played to juvenile-fixation perfection by Peter Billingsley) narrates that 1983 film classic set in the 1940s, he delivers this enduring warning:

"Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us."

So on this Christmas Eve, keep in mind that the presence, or absence, of a Nativity scene is not an "unthinkable disaster."

And keep in mind that Christmas time should be a happy time.

So happy holidays - or, if you prefer:

Merry Christmas!

Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is wooten@postandcourier.com.