Stateline Story

Your Governor Wishes You a (Fill in Blank)

  • December 19, 2005
  • By Brian H. Kehrl
Forget Red state vs. Blue state. For governors, the split that's in vogue this season is between those offering "Christmas" wishes and those sending "holiday" tidings in their annual greeting cards.

A Stateline.org survey found that 37 of the 50 state leaders - 18 Democrats and 19 Republicans—are sending wishes for a happy—nameless—holiday. Nine governors—two Democrats and seven Republicans—are explicit in wishing the joy of "Christmas."

In the "bah, humbug" category are the governors of Minnesota, Nevada and New Mexico; they aren't sending official cards at all. And because of disruptions caused by Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) hasn't decided when or whether to send greetings of the season.

Overall, the most prolific card sender is Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) . He's dropping 40,000 greetings in the post box - 12,500 more than second-place Gov. Ed Rendell (D)  in Pennsylvania—though several thousand double as invitations to an Ehrlich open house. The shortest mailing list belongs to Gov. John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota. The only people getting official cards from him are 287 members of the North Dakota National Guard on active duty in Iraq and Germany or headed to Afghanistan.    

The distinction between Christmas and holiday cards came to the fore this year when President Bush's card - featuring a snow-draped White House with no holiday bunting -- was drubbed by conservative activists who claimed the president gave in to political correctness by failing to mention "Christmas." While the majority of governors' cards also use all-inclusive holiday language, their messages can't be categorized as neatly as Santa's naughty and nice list.

At least a dozen governors - including eight with generic holiday greetings - mix in a dose of religion. The card from Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) of Georgia—fronted by a seasonally insignificant modern-art portrait of him and the first lady—takes the prize for the most deeply religious inscription that still fails to mention Christmas.

Only one—Gov. Bob Riley (R) of Alabama—names "the risen Christ," whose birth is celebrated on Dec. 25. But Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R ), a former Baptist minister, pictures the baby Jesus in a crèche - on the back of a tear-off card with Mrs. Huckabee's brisket recipe - and trumps everyone by mentioning Christmas four times, as well as "our Savior's birth," and the "Messiah."

While secular, other cards don't ignore the traditional symbols of Christmas. California's card steers clear of saying "Merry Christmas" but features a colorful, decorated fir tree hand-painted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Likewise, Pennsylvania's Rendell (D), who is Jewish, goes with a safe "Season's Greetings" but pictures a decorated tree and "stockings … hung by the chimney with care." His photo on the back, though, is dated Christmas 2005.

The cost of greeting cards and mailing generally is covered by a governor's campaign or other privately raised funds. Governors or their spouses often choose the card's design and message and personalize it in a number of ways. Some highlights:

  • Family photos are the most popular feature, but at least eight governors include a photo of pet dogs. Kentucky's Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) include "paw prints" from the first pooch.
  • "God Bless Mississippi," Gov. Haley Barbour (R) declares inside a card featuring a photo of him and the first lady viewing Hurricane Katrina destruction. He adds an eerily appropriate quote from Jeremiah in the Old Testament: "There is hope for your future, says the Lord. Your children will come again to their own land." He never says Merry Christmas, though the card is dated "Christmas 2005."
  • Schwarzenegger sent 200-minute phone cards along with his holiday greeting to 5,200 state National Guard members serving overseas.   Another 4,500 state employees and supporters will receive cards that say: "As our holiday gift to you, a phone card has been given to" guardsmen.
  • Besides Schwarzenegger, Tennessee's Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) also paints the picture that appears on his Christmas cards.
  • A high school sophomore made a picture of children caring for a "tree of peace" that fronts Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's (R) card, while an 8-year-old created "The Peaceful Blue Bird" on Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's (D) card.
  • Hawaii's Gov. Linda Lingle (R), who is Jewish, chose her island state's traditional "Mele Kalikimaka" -- literally "Merry Christmas" -- for her card.
  • While they don't mention "Christmas," these six governors - all Republican -- print a passage from Scripture: Jeb Bush of Florida, Sonny Perdue of Georgia, Matt Blunt of  Missouri, Dave Heineman of Nebraska, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Rick Perry of Texas.
  • The nine governors whose holiday mailings specifically carried a Christmas greeting are: Democrats Brad Henry of Oklahoma, Bredesen of Tennessee, and Republicans Riley of Alabama, Huckabee of Arkansas, Lingle of Hawaii, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Fletcher of Kentucky, Ehrlich of Maryland and Hoeven of North Dakota.          
  • Many governors' offices said their holiday cards have had a similar theme and message for several years, with no controversy. But this year, in addition to the row over the White House card, Christian activists started pressuring retailers to use "Christmas" instead of "holiday" in their marketing. Besides Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Chanukah begins this year on Dec. 25, and Kwanzaa begins Dec. 26.

A national poll released Dec. 15 shows more Americans prefer the greeting, "Merry Christmas," to the secular "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" by a margin of 60 percent to 23 percent. But a 45 percent plurality says it doesn't matter much either way, according to the survey by the Pew  Research  Center for the People & the Press, which like Stateline.org  is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

"We want it to be a holiday card so we don't offend anyone," First Lady Karen Baldacci of Maine told Stateline.org . "Elected officials are representative of all Americans, and not all Americans are Christian, white and Anglo-Saxon," she said.

On the other hand, Joel Sawyer, a spokesman for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), who doesn't mention the word "Christmas" but quotes Micah from the Old Testatment, said Sanford believes that "just as Christians should be tolerant of other people's faith, people of other faiths or no faith should be tolerant of Christian beliefs."

With holiday cards already likely in production when the latest flap hit, it is the statehouse Christmas tree that has taken the brunt of new sensitivity over what's in a Yuletide name. Just like the U.S. House, which this year directed the tree at the nation's Capitol to be named officially a "Christmas tree," the 35-foot blue spruce decked in lights in front of the Idaho Capitol officially will be called a "Christmas tree" for the first time in Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's seven years in office.

The Michigan Senate this month passed a non-binding resolution declaring the state's decorous December fir a "Christmas tree."

In Georgia, Perdue's press office this month sent out a news release announcing the lighting of the "holiday" tree, only to send out a correction 30 minutes later calling it a "Christmas tree." "We had a politically correct brain-freeze on that issue," explained Perdue spokesman Shane Hix.

 Editor's Note: Stateline.org  has corrected its story to report that nine governors used "Christmas" and 37 preferred "holiday" greetings, after originally reporting a margin of 10 to 36. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) was switched to the "holiday" category after an inspection of the text of his greeting card and an accompanying letter showed he never used the word "Christmas," contradicting earlier information indicating the word was used.