Should Christmas lights be renamed? Would ‘Winter lights’ or ‘Celebrity lights’ be better? Susan Roberts reports on the reaction to councils’ efforts to make public Christmas displays less obviously Christian…
In the US it’s usual – so as not to cause offence – to say ‘Happy Holidays’, not ‘Merry Christmas’.
But, according to Fox News Channel anchor John Gibson, there are worrying reasons for this. He suspects a liberal plot is afoot to ‘ban the sacred holiday’, serious moves to take Christ out of Christmas.
His new book, The War on Christmas, expands. In Illinois, state government workers have been forbidden to utter the words ‘Merry Christmas’ while at work. In Rhode Island, local officials banned Christians from participating in a public project to decorate the lawn of the City Hall. And in Arizona, school officials have ruled it unconstitutional for a student to make any reference to the religious history of Christmas in a class project.
It makes the recent furore in the UK over councils’ moves to secularise Christmas light displays seem tame in comparison.
Nothing, so far this year, has matched the explosive row in 1998 when Birmingham City Council used the term ‘Winterval’ to brand its multi-faith season of festive family events over Christmas and the New Year. It had hoped to create a celebration to reflect the city’s rich ethnic mix. Instead it was accused of political correctness gone mad.
At least two councils this year have so far courted the headlines – notably in Lambeth in south London, and in Suffolk. Lambeth Council apparently decided to rename its Christmas lights displays ‘Winter Lights’ and ‘Celebrity Lights’ so as not to offend other faiths.
At Waveney District Council in Lowestoft, councillors were presented with a report that suggested cutting funding for festive lights because Christmas did not fit in with the council’s ‘core values of equality and diversity’.
In both cases, the councils back-tracked. A swift damage limitation exercise by press and public relations departments blamed junior – and anonymous – council officials for ‘administrative errors’ – and ‘errors of judgement’.
But clearly someone, somewhere, had thought that it would be a good idea to be inclusive – evidently less ‘Christian’. Non-Christian religious groups – possibly the ones the junior officials had clearly hoped not to offend – seem bemused.
The Hindu Forum of Britain represents 240 organisations from all over the country. It recently spearheaded a campaign to persuade the Royal Mail to withdraw a stamp many Hindus said was disrespectful to their religion. The 68p stamp, depicting a Hindu couple worshipping the infant Jesus, was the visual equivalent of a vicar in a dog collar kneeling down to the Hindu deity Lord Ram, the Forum said.
But Ramesh Kallidai, Secretary General, told surefish that none of his organisations had ever objected to the fact that Christians celebrate Christmas. 'If someone wants to celebrate Christmas, they should have a Christmas light, if someone wants to celebrate diwali, they should have a diwali light…
'It‘s nice to see public displays of faith that are not invasions of privacy but are a wonderful expression of people’s values.' He celebrates Christmas himself, he said. 'In my house, we have a Christmas tree and we call it a Christmas tree – my son gives me a Christmas present.
'People who come up with labels like 'Winter Lights' don’t understand diversity in the faith communities … They shouldn’t be deciding on the part of Hindus.'
Jon Benjamin, Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies representing synagogues and Jewish organisations, agreed. 'The fact that people find time for Christmas and a religious festival – whatever it’s about – can only be a healthy thing,” he said.
'The simple point is that the Jewish community that lives here lives in an ostensibly Christian community. The majority of people are Christian, whether practising or not. They should be allowed to practice their religion the way that they want.
'When I was at primary school in Croydon, I used to be in the Nativity play – something non-controversial like a shepherd – and I was happy to do it. My parents were consulted and were happy for me to do so. 'It’s part of Jewish teaching that one respects the civil law, customs and governance of the country one is living in.'
At the Muslim Council of Britain, which groups 400 affiliates, a spokeswoman said Muslims have never indicated that they were uncomfortable with the celebration of Christmas. She suggested that such misguided attempts by councils to be inclusive might cause more harm than good. 'The presumptions that people make about what Muslims might think and what might offend their sensibilities are actually quite damaging to community relations.'
Jon Benjamin agreed that it’s potentially dangerous territory. A lack of consultation is at best ridiculous. He has known of well-intentioned council officials organising ‘Diversity Days’ on Jewish holidays – not realising that it would be impossible for Jewish people to attend. 'That concerns us,' he said.
The National Secular Society suggested that council officials’ apparent caution – the desire at all costs not to offend non-Christians – comes from public bodies’ experience of religious bodies being overly sensitive. It’s a misguided attempt to placate people by misguided secularists, said Vice President Terry Sanderson. “Religious organisations can take offence at everything – local authorities go out of their way to satisfy that kind of sensitivity.'
He argued that Christmas is scarcely celebrated in a religious sense in this country at all. A vast majority of people – nearly 72 per cent – may have said that they were Christian in the 2001 census. But they were merely expressing a vague spirituality – falling church attendance figures suggest that they were not practising Christians, he said.
“Most people like Christmas maybe because there’s some memory in them of the Winter Solstice – traditional long before Christianity took over. People would exchange gifts. The fact that it’s now called Christmas is neither here nor there.'
But – despite all this – he believes that those Christians who want to celebrate Christmas should go ahead and do so. 'I’m perfectly happy for Christians to celebrate Christmas however they wish.'
What do you think? Surefish would be interested to hear your views. Post your comments here as the count-down to Christmas begins.