Sunday, 25 October 2009

Bish, Bash, Tosh! (Folk Myths of a PC Christmas)

My interest was peeked this weekend by a shouty article in Birmingham's leading tabloid:

"Midlands Church Leaders in Battle to Save Christmas" screamed the headline. The article itself is no less polemic, announcing it as a gauntlet thrown down to "The Politically Correct Brigade" (whoever they are).

The Mercury quotes the bishop at length...

"We’re just getting to the season when the papers like to report on local councils who, out of concern for ethnic minorities, have banned Christmas in favour of Winterval or another silly name.

This year that kind of story is likely to be more than matched by stories of big firms sacking those people who want to wear a cross, a fish lapel badge or some other sign of the Christian faith.

Ethnic minorities are far more anxious about the rampant secularism and commercialism that erodes all Christian standards than they are about their host country properly celebrating its Christian foundations."

(Read the rest of it here

Now I'm not arguing against the good bishop's right to express his fears but there are two phrases which need highlighting in the above paragraph.

"the papers like to report..." and "that kind of story is likely to be more than matched by...". It hasn't actually happened you see?

Trying to find an actual example of a local authority or a company banning Christmas is as difficult as trying to find a Muslim who's offended by cheap plastic baubles and borrowed pagan symbols. It's like trying to nail jelly to a wall, but the idea persists that they're all at it.

The Chronicle warns "it comes as a report reveals three out of four employers will not be putting up decorations this year for fear of offending staff."

I wanted to read that report, so I went looking for it. It was conducted by an employment law firm which deals with compensation claims against employers. Oh and it was done in 2006.

Despite the decrepit and potentially biased nature of the stats and the paucity of other proof, the Chronicle (and the Bishop) have responded as though the sky is falling, while Muslims and other minority faiths respond with utter bewilderment.

The "Winterval" scare is also an urban myth. Back in 1997 and 1998 Birmingham City Council came up with an idea to promote the redevelopment of it's city centre to everyone. What it wanted to do was include a whole grab-bag of celebrations without making anyone think it was just about Christmas. Among the events between October 20th and mid-January it wanted to celebrate were such foreign muck as; The Christmas lights switch on, BBC Children in Need, Aston Hall by Candlelight, New Years eve, various theatre shows, an open air ice rink, Frankfurt open air Christmas market and "the Christmas seasonal retail offer".

Fortunately for the headline writers, the Hindu Diwali festival, Chinese New Year and the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr were also included. Knee-jerkers will often call Eid "Muslim Christmas" but it moves forward 11 days each year so most of the time it's nowhere near the Christian festival. Not in 1997 and 1998 though. Then it was slap bang in the middle. A perfect chance to make money off Muslims and Christians alike, not to mention BBC viewers and Torville and Dean fans. But the authority made the mistake of using one of those public service words which has the effect of turning tabloid hacks into rabid attack dogs. That word is "Inclusive".

What started off as a marketing ploy to get more punters in to the town centre on dark winter nights swiftly spiralled into a national tabloid sensation, as editors scrambled to gain the high ground of moral indignation on what was always a hill of sand.

Commentators raged at "Political correctness gone mad" but consider this; If I go and ask a bishop the two following questions (as a qualified journalist) which do you think is going to get a more explosive response?

Q1) Birmingham City council wants to rename Christmas "Winterval" to avoid offending Muslims. What do you think?

Q2) Birmingham city council wants to get as much money as possible off everyone this Christmas so it's calling its major marketing event Winterval so it can include adverts for Diwali, Eid, Dancing on Ice and Children In Need. What do you think?

Guess which angle the papers went for? Here's a clue; The Sunday Mercury, bastion of fine editorial content that it is, has such gems as "Stourbridge widow was £1,000 per night hooker" and "Britain's Got Talent star offers sex for money" on it's front page this week. Incisive stuff.

The Winterval story was just too good for them to miss. 12 years on it's still running. "A lie", they say, "will be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on".

So I'm sorry to be a wet blanket on everyone's righteous anger but this is a tabloid inspired circulation booster.

A combination of lazy journalism and partisan paranoia have conspired to bring another non-story back from the dead. It is truly a ghost of Christmas past.

You've been had. Again.

Thought for the day: How many people who use the Coca-Cola company's image of Santa, hang pagan mistletoe in the hall and fight for a Christian Christmas have been to church in the last 12 months?


  1. I hate to disappoint you but we used to have a seasonal wreath and good wishes on our web page, until the Islamic soc asked us to display a message during Eid as well. Fair enough. We don't put anything up now :-)

  2. @Kissmeforlonger: Did they ask you to take down the wreath? Did they say it offended them? These are genuine questions, not rhetoric. Counter-arguments are good for arguments. Exceptions strengthen rules.
    I have a a number of Jewish, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu contacts and friends. When it's one of their holidays I ask them about them and wish them the appropriate compliments of their season. It's basic neighbourliness. In return they generally put up with me being an atheist.

  3. No, they wanted their own festivals marked as well and looking at the whole thing holistically (not just muslim and christian festivals) it would have been very difficult to maintain. So we stopped doing it for anyone.

    I do remember having a tricky time trying to make a poor quality picture of Mecca display at a decent resolution on our home page - that's how close we got to doing it :-)