Who Killed Christmas

There's no 'war on Christmas' from without – only a lack of belief within.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Christmas is now the scene for an increasingly farcical battle over religious symbols.

Earlier this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, attacked ‘silly bureaucrats’ for banning Christian symbols lest they offend people of other faiths (1). Former archbishop Dr George Carey warned about ‘political correctness that is creeping in and undermining the public expression of the Christian faith’.

There has been a spate of reports about Christmas being ‘banned’ in British towns and cities. The south London borough of Lambeth apparently renamed its Christmas lights ‘winter lights’, or ‘celebrity lights’, to avoid the divisive C-word. ‘Christmas is banned: it offends Muslims’, read the front page of the Daily Express. Havant Borough Council in Hampshire reportedly renamed its Christmas celebrations the ‘Festival of Lights’; while Waveney District Council in Suffolk is planning to cut back grants for festive lights, on the basis that they ‘do not fit well with the council’s core values of equality and diversity’. Apparently, some carol services have been cancelled – and there are rumours that the Home Office is cutting funding for an annual carol service for the families of murder victims, on the grounds that it isn’t inclusive (2).

A series of campaigns aim to put Christ back into Christmas. The Bishop of Lichfield, the Right Reverend Jonathan Gledhill, has launched a poster campaign showing a baby wearing a yellow armband with the words, ‘Make Christmas His Story’. On the other side of the pond, figures from the religious right are threatening legal suits against stores who drop ‘Merry Christmas’ for the more neutral ‘Happy Holidays’. One school system in Texas ended up in court after teachers asked children to bring white, rather than red and green, napkins to a Christmas party (3).

Yet who really finds Christmas lights offensive? ‘I find it bizarre to suggest that Muslims will be offended’, says Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain’s mosque and community affairs committee. There are no bands of Muslims, Jews, or Hindus tearing down nativity displays or calling on councils to mind their C-words. Indeed, many Muslims prefer Christianity to the heathen alternative of secularism, finding common cause in issues such as family values and belief in God. ‘This is a Christian country, and we take heart from the fact that this country is labelled a faith country. I wish all Christians a Merry Christmas’, says Mogra. In today’s Guardian, Rehna Azim wrote: ‘I’ve had occasion to meet hundreds of British Asians of all ages and faiths…. They say they love or at least respect Christmas and can’t understand the newspaper stories.’ (4)

This comes at a time when Christmas has been almost entirely emptied of religious content. We may still use the symbols – the manger, stars, angels, and carols – but it’s mainly just a matter of habit. We enjoy them, just as we enjoy setting up Christmas trees, but most people no more believe the Jesus story than they believe that Christmas trees are a way of sustaining the spirits of the forest. Oxford Street’s lights this year feature chandeliers and characters from the cartoon, Ice Age. ‘How is that Christian?’, asked one 19-year-old student, gesturing at the lights. ‘For most people. Christmas is about presents and having fun.’ Meanwhile, Brixton high street in Lambeth features flashing stars, and what appears to be either dancing chillies or sleighs.

Dig a little deeper, though, and it transpires that nobody is banning Christmas. A spokesperson for Havant Borough Council denies that its Festival of Lights had anything to do with avoiding offence. ‘The word “Christmas” was never dropped from the celebration. The Havant Business Association gave it that name because it was about light – a procession of children carrying lights, and the Christmas lights being switched on.’ There was plenty of traditional content, including Santas, carol singing, and a ‘religious service held in a shopping centre’. An innocent choice of name was seen as a grand plot against Christmas.

Meanwhile, Lambeth’s naming of its Christmas lights was the decision of one junior staff member, rather than council policy. ‘All it was was one junior officer erring on the side of caution’, said a representative from Lambeth Council, ‘and all of a sudden newspapers claim that the council has put out this directive not to use the word Christmas’. The term ‘celebrity lights’ isn’t plastered over the district – it was mentioned in a small advert in an issue of Lambeth Life. Indeed, Brixton Town Hall bears a banner saying ‘Lambeth Council wishes you all a happy Christmas’.

It seems that the defenders of Christmas are fighting phantom enemies. They are stopping us from expressing our Christianity, claims the Archbishop of Canterbury. Apparently those Christmas killjoys/Muslims/PC crowd are preventing us from having a Christian Christmas. But in reality, there’s little assault from without, only a lack of belief within. Church leaders are essentially blaming others for their loss of faith – it’s far easier to attack ‘PC puritans’ than to recognise that all those angels and cribs don’t mean much anymore. Dr Rowan Williams’ attack on the ‘PC Puritans’ contains a limp and vague case for the Christian story. Apparently ‘the Christian Christmas is a time of astonished delight’, and ‘We need to be surprised’. As a clincher he writes: ‘As the detective story writer Dorothy Sayers remarked, you can say what you like about [Christianity], but one thing it isn’t is boring.’ (5) When the church doesn’t even hold to the truth of the Virgin Birth, it’s not surprising that Dr Williams has to wing it a bit.

Christmas wars are occurring over questions of etiquette, not religious doctrine. It’s the naming of trees and lights that preoccupies, not the question of which religious book has it right. In the USA, activists are arm-twisting people to ‘just say Merry Christmas’. The ‘Committee to Save Merry Christmas’ notes that Macy’s department store includes the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ in its in-store signage (6). This is about getting people to repeat ritual words, while disregarding the fact that they mean little. Real religious differences aren’t about the wrapping of Christmas. As Mogra says, ‘It is not offensive that Christmas is called Christmas. Instead, I would disagree with the assertion that Jesus is the son of God’.

People at the top are certainly wary of causing offence at this time of year. Mogra tells me that he has handled dozens of calls from businesses ‘just making sure’ that their Christmas celebrations won’t offend Muslims. ‘They ask, “Is Christmas offensive to Muslims?”, or “Is it okay to have a Christmas tree in the office?”, or “Can we call them Christmas Sales?”.’ But this isn’t so much a three-line whip, as people anxious about doing the right thing. ‘They don’t want to fall on the wrong side’, as Mogra puts it. Oversensitivity isn’t consigned to New Labour apparatchiks. Tellingly, Waveney has a Tory-run council and is a rural area with little cultural diversity. Once put in the spotlight, officials get even more anxious. They apologise for Christmas, then apologise for apologising.

We should call a halt to this phoney war. For most people, Christmas is about family, fun and presents. That is why some people of non-Christian religions enjoy trees and presents along with everybody else. These pitched battles over the Ps and Qs of Christmas are enough to put you off your turkey.

(1) Mail on Sunday, 18 December 2005

(2) See discussion group on Jihadwatch website

(3) Battles rage in US over celebrating holidays, ABC News, 18 December 2005

(4) ‘Pantomime season in the press’, Guardian, 21 December 2005

(5) Mail on Sunday, 18 December 2005

(6) See the Save Merry Christmas website

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Topics Politics


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