Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas candles "unsafe" in the Unhinged Kingdom

They've only been doing it for 259 years without mishap but you never know!

Children at one of the biggest Christingle Services in Essex will not be allowed to put lighted candles in their oranges this year in the wake of new safety fears, it has emerged. Instead, youngsters at Chelmsford Cathedral's Christmas Eve celebration will be using non-flamable glowsticks similar to those waved around at rock festivals.

But yesterday, one of the family event's organisers, Richard Spilsbury, said that the move was not in response to political correctness but instead the genuine concerns of some parents at last year's event. "Last year the cathedral was jam packed with people, and it was very difficult to physically move around," he said. "I know it sounds a bit of a kill-joy, but we thought we would give this alternative a try. "What happens at the service is the children process to the altar where they hand over cardboard tubes containing money for the Children's Society. "They then go back to their seats where they are given a Christingle, which is an orange with four spikes on it - with sweets - and a candle in the middle. "The idea is they then form a circle with the candles lit, the lights go down and it really looks very magical. "Last year there were so many you couldn't do this and we had problems getting children back to their seats."

Mr Spilsbury said that last year it was so difficult to move around, supervisors could not light all of the Christingles themselves and instead had to rely on the congregation lighting them from one to the other. "Things were so crammed some parents were very worried about candles and childrens' hair," he said. "We're not talking about 10 or 20 here - there were well-over 300 Christingles given out." Mr Spilsbury said the idea of using glowsticks instead of candles had been proposed by the Childrens' Society itself as an alternative. "We thought we would give it a try. They glow quite brightly," he explained.

He added that the sticks were activated by being shaked or bent. "We haven't quite worked out when to do it - there is a lot of preparation. "But if it doesn't work, we will go back to candles. The thing is, we don't want to spoil things, but we also don't want to put anyone in danger." The Christmas Eve Christingle Service takes place at Chelmsford Cathedral at 3pm.


Male/female sex roles gave modern the humans advantage over Neanderthals

One in the eye for the feminists: More evidence that sex roles are normal and natural in mankind and not "socially constructed"

Diversified social roles for men, women, and children may have given Homo sapiens an advantage over Neanderthals, says a new study in the December 2006 issue of Current Anthropology. The study argues that division of economic labor by sex and age emerged relatively recently in human evolutionary history and facilitated the spread of modern humans throughout Eurasia. "The competitive advantage enjoyed by modern humans came not just from new weapons and devices but from the ways in which their economic lives were organized around the advantages of cooperation and complementary subsistence roles for men, women, and children," write Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner (University of Arizona).

Kuhn and Stiner note that the rich archaeological record for Neanderthal diets provides little direct evidence for a reliance on subsistence foods, such as milling stones to grind nuts and seeds. Instead, Neanderthals depended on large game, a high-stakes resource, to fuel their massive body mass and high caloric intake. This lack of food diversity and the presence of healed fractures on Neanderthal skeletons-attesting to a rough-and-tumble lifestyle-suggest that female and juvenile Neanderthals participated actively in the hunt by serving as game drivers, beating bushes or cutting off escape routes.

The Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal record also lacks the artifacts commonly used to make weather-resistant clothing or artificial shelters, such as bone needles. Thus, it was the emergence of "female" roles - subsistence and skill-intensive craft - that allowed H. sapiens in ecologically diverse tropical and sub-tropical regions to take advantage of other foods and live at higher population densities. "Earlier hominins pursued more narrowly focused economies, with women's activities more closely aligned with those of men with respect to schedule and ranging patterns," write the authors. "It is impossible to argue that [Neanderthal] females and juveniles were fulfilling the same roles-or even an equally diverse suite of economic roles-as females and juveniles in recent hunter-gatherer groups," they add.

While some degree of niche specialization between adult male and females is documented for many large-mammal species, recent humans are remarkable for cooperative economies that combine pervasive sharing and complementary roles for individuals of different ages and sexes.


Muslim pilgrims urged to complain

American Muslims making a religious pilgrimage to Mecca are being encouraged to file civil rights complaints if they feel discriminated against by airlines. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), citing what it called the "airport profiling" of six imams removed from a recent flight, yesterday said Muslims traveling this month to the holy site in Saudi Arabia need to be aware of their rights. "Given the increase in the number of complaints CAIR has received alleging airport profiling of American Muslims, we believe it is important that all those taking part in this year's hajj be aware of their legal and civil rights," said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR spokesman. The group has established a toll-free hot line (800/784-7526) for victims of "flying while Muslim," as Muslims have begun departing for the weeklong hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime obligation to visit the holy city of Mecca, which this year begins Dec. 29.

But M. Zuhdi Jasser, a Phoenix physician and chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), said the announcement by CAIR "continues the tired stoking of the flames of victimization." "They are unfortunately exploiting, for purely political reasons, what should be a sacred and purely spiritual story of our faith's annual holy pilgrimage to Mecca," Dr. Jasser said. "We need new leadership and organizations which use their passions and the bandwidth of the media to lead the ideological fight against radical and political Islam rather than this tired pre-emption of supposed discrimination."

CAIR is representing the six imams removed from a US Airways flight last month and has asked for a meeting with the airline to seek an out-of-court settlement. It maintains that police and witness reports detailing the imams unusual behavior before their removal last month were ethnically and/or religiously motivated. The imams say they were praying and did not, as the reports say, change seats and make remarks critical of President Bush and the Iraq war.

Pilots and air marshals called the incident a "PC probe" to intimidate passengers and crew from reporting suspicious behavior by Muslim passengers and are fearful the incident will set off a domino effect of lawsuits. Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, thinks this is a ploy to extort money from the airlines. "I think CAIR is soliciting complaints, and if they don't get it, they will make it up," said Miss Burlingame, who is also a director for the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. "People complain about everything, including bad weather, so, the angry Muslim activists will be loaded for bear," Miss Burlingame said.

A guide issued by CAIR advises Muslims that "as an airline passenger, you are entitled to courteous, respectful and non-stigmatizing treatment by airline and security personnel." "You have the right to complain about treatment that you believe is discriminatory," the guide says. Those treated in a discriminatory manner are advised by CAIR to "ask for the names and ID numbers of all persons involved in the incident. Be sure to write this information down."

The Washington Times obtained police and witness reports just days after the incident involving the imams, and reported on Nov. 28 that the men did not sit in their assigned seats, asked for seat-belt extensions they did not need, and spoke in Arabic among themselves. Federal air marshals and pilots were also asked by The Washington Times to examine the imams' seating arrangement, and reported that it resembled a pattern used by the September 11 hijackers. "That behavior has been identified as a terrorist probe in the airline industry," one pilot said.

One airline official who asked to remain anonymous called the CAIR threats about ethnic profiling "much ado about a practice that does not exist in any major airline." "You do wonder what the ultimate aim is here; to eliminate a discriminatory practice that does not exist, or is there some other agenda afoot," the official said.


Do they know it’s Christmas?

By Frank Furedi

Forget 'Peace on Earth' - Christmas has become a battleground in the culture war over the status of religion

Never mind `Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men' - Christmas has become a battleground in the confused clash of values over the status of religion in modern society.  It is difficult to know who or what to believe in the perplexing debate about the War on Christmas. On one side, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, is convinced that ‘illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists’ have launched a crusade against the Christian symbols of Christmas. On the other side, a Guardian writer claims that ‘The phoney war on Christmas’ is a fantasy dreamt up by religious bigots, while the president of the National Secular Society thinks that those raising the alarm about an attack on Christmas are trying to provoke ‘resentment against a perceived enemy’.

Depending on whom you believe there may or may not be a war on Christmas. And there may or may not be an underhand anti-secular campaign masquerading as a defence of traditional Christmas. The only thing that we can be certain about is that there definitely is a debate between at least two sides that deeply dislike each other. Whether or not there is a war against Christmas, there is certainly a war of words about it. And whatever the facts, Christmas has been turned into a symbolic battlefield in an undeclared culture war throughout the Anglo-American world.

The symbolic significance of Christmas has been recognised in the United States by both sides in the culture war. Liberal author Bill Press’s book, How The Republicans Stole Christmas: Why The Religious Right Is Wrong About Faith and Politics And What Can We Do To Make It Right is more than matched by Fox News anchorman John Gibson’s effort, The War on Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Both of these books are long on titles, short on ideas and betray a powerful sense of moral illiteracy. 

So what is going on? There may not be a concerted war against Christmas, but this symbolically charged holiday has become a target of critics who would like to marginalise its role in public life. Nibbling away at the status of Christmas is not without consequences. According to a new report, three out of four UK employers have banned Christmas decorations from their offices because they are concerned not to offend other faiths. Of course these headline-seeking surveys should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Christmas celebrations have not quite been abolished in the British workplace. My own quick survey of friends and acquaintances indicates that Christmas is still celebrated, but in a more restrained manner. One human resources director told me that she felt uneasy about the office Christmas party because it ‘raised equality issues’. ‘What if some employees insist on a Diwali Party’ she asked. This kind of attitude explains why in many workplaces the Christmas spirit has become conspicuous by its absence. Some company killjoys are motivated to abolish the Christmas office party to avoid the risk of health and safety and litigation. Others do not want to ‘offend’ non-Christians. They see Christmas becoming a hassle that they can well do without.

That the times are changing is demonstrated by the number of cards I get that self-consciously avoid wishing me ‘Happy Christmas’. The growing tendency towards sending a Christian-free card is definitely not a fantasy invented by religious bigots. Everyone knows that it is happening and that such cards are implicitly making a statement. That is why there has been so much media interest in this year’s seasonal cards sent out by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Just this morning I received a surprisingly humorous card from the Commission For Racial Equality. The front of this send-up card states that it is a ‘DRAFT Christmas Card Proposal’, and is covered in scrawled questions about whether the pictured reindeer are sufficiently diverse, whether a risk assessment has been done on the candles etc . Inside, where it states ‘Season’s greetings from the CRE’, the word ‘Season’s’ is circled and linked to a question ‘Christmas?’ The card highlights a world where the words you choose to greet people have symbolic significance. Like all good satire, this card points to something very real going on in society (view the card).

If Christmas is losing its monopoly in the seasonal cards market, its role has also diminished within UK schools. Many schools no longer stage a nativity play, and the Christmas concert is often transformed into a worthy multi-cultural and multi-faith celebration of ‘diversity’ or of nothing in particular. Elsewhere the Red Cross has reportedly banned its staff from putting up Advent calendars associated with Christmas, and there are various reports of the local council language police rebranding Christmas lights as Winterlights or renaming Christmas ‘Winterval’.

The attempt to deprive Christmas of any distinct religious or cultural significance is not confined to Britain. In Australia, the Lord Mayor of Sydney decided to ban the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ and turn Christmas cards into civic greetings cards. In the USA, too, there are many sad anti-Christmas crusaders who criticise the event for excluding or offending non-Christians. One state government banned employees from saying ‘Merry Christmas’ while at work. Many American schools have renamed the Christmas break as ‘Winter Break’ or ‘Winter Celebration’. These incidents do not quite add up to a war, but they do reflect a cultural mood that seems uncomfortable with the celebration of a traditional Christmas.

Predictably there is now also a counter-campaign to uphold traditional Christmas symbols and practices.  The Sun, Britain’s largest selling daily, has launched a campaign to ‘save’ Christmas from political correctness, denouncing officious bureaucrats for their petty attempts to spoil the Christmas celebrations. Both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams and the Roman Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor have attacked the trend for downplaying the traditional image of Christmas; Williams took particular exception to the absence of any Christian themes in Christmas stamps issued by the Royal Mail.  Some Muslim leaders are also worried that those trying to marginalise Christmas could provoke popular hostility, and that Muslims will be blamed. Last month the Christian-Muslim Forum published a letter criticising the attempt to suppress Christmas.

Some supporters of the campaign to save Christmas appear to believe that the problem they confront is that of militant secularism. The missive issued by the Forum, in the name of a leading Islamic cleric and the Anglican Bishop of Bolton, states that ‘there seems to be a secularising agenda which fails to understand the concerns of religious communities’. The leaders of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church objected to what they see as an ‘ongoing secularist campaign to drive Christ out of Christmas’ (3). That same theme is expounded upon in a report by a new think-tank, Theos, entitled Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Square.  ‘Aggressive secularists’ are also the target of the Archbishop of York.

However, secularism as such should not be held responsible for the behaviour of simpletons who wish to rebrand Christmas into a meaningless exercise in diversity. It is worth noting that the institution of Christmas has coexisted with secularism for a very long time. More importantly, Christmas has been secularised for more than a century. Yes, the festivities have an important religious dimension, but most people experience the rituals associated with Christmas in a very secular manner. Of course, many of us decry the commercialisation, yet shopping represents a far more important dimension of our Christmas experience than going to Church. The amount of energy devoted to the purchase of Christmas presents far outweighs what is channelled into religious reflection.

Whatever church leaders say there is no need for a malevolent atheist campaign to drive Christ out of Christmas. For a very long time now Christ has had only a walk-on part in the proceedings. The gifts, the office party, the family meal, the boozing and all the hectic activity around the Xmas tree are profoundly secular events that nevertheless have major significance for people’s lives. That Christianity provides the story and also gives meaning to this experience points to the relatively harmonious interaction between the religious and the secular, at least at that time of year. That is why, through many decades, the secularisation of Christmas did not diminish the symbolic importance of the event.

By protesting about the alleged aggressive secularisation of Christmas, the Church evades confronting the difficult question: why is it now unable to give Christian meaning to Christmas? This month a vicar in Dorset banned a man from wearing a Santa Claus outfit in his carol service.  Apparently the good vicar wanted to put religion at the heart of the celebration, to counter the influence of secularism and materialism. However, it is more likely to be the Church itself, not the wearing of Santa hats, that is responsible for the feeble sense of religious meaning associated with the celebration of Christmas.

The attempt to restrict the public role of Christmas is encouraged not so much by a hatred of religion, but by a profound sense of moral malaise. It has become commonplace in contemporary Western society to assume that it is not possible for us to have a common language through which we make sense of the world. It is assumed that there are no durable values that can transcend differences in identity, culture and religion. Instead of attempting to uphold values to which all humans can subscribe, we are counselled to respect difference and celebrate diversity. From this perspective, it is offensive to wish ‘Happy Christmas’ to someone who is not a practising Christian. Such sentiments are now fairly widespread – at least among sections of the middle class and in public institutions. Which is why many of us play it safe and send out cards that refrain from wishing the recipient ‘Merry Christmas’.

The bewilderment that surrounds Christmas is symptomatic of the far wider problem of not knowing how to behave in circumstances where we lack a moral language for expressing right and wrong. We feel far more comfortable describing something as safe or risky than in making a value judgement using words like good or bad. That is why critics of Christmas often hide behind the language of health and safety. For example the Sun ripped into the management of a Castleford shopping centre for preventing a 30-strong choir from performing in their usual spot because it was deemed too risky for them to stand in front of the fire exit. In the same way, a major bank warned its employees not to place Christmas decorations near computers as they could be a fire hazard.

The Sun also rightly took exception to the child protection campaign Kidscape’s demand that youngsters should be banned from sitting on Santa’s knee. In this case the prevailing mistrust about the moral status of grown-up men makes it easy to question the role of Santa Claus. Of course although Santa is not a religious figure he serves as a recognised symbol of Christmas. Michelle Elliot, Kidscape’s director argued that ‘you can’t vet all the people dressed as Santa’. Which is why a shopping centre in Llanelli, South Wales has installed a webcam to spy on Santa. And if Santa needs to undergo a police check why not the church leader who is in charge of a choir of children practising their Christmas carols?

Fear of paedophiles masquerading as Santa Claus, an obsession with health and safety, a mood of risk aversion and anxiety about offending others are powerful motifs that influence everyday life and encourage doubts about the familiar. That is why there is so much pressure on Christmas to reform its image. There is also another influence at work. Western society finds it increasingly difficult to affirm its institutions and celebrate its achievements. A powerful mood of cynicism prevails that uncritically dismisses tradition and celebrates the most shallow and philistine reaction against it.

In this vein, Channel 4 television has decided to transmit an ‘Alternative Christmas Message’ by a Muslim woman in a veil, at the same time as the Queen’s traditionally Christian message. Lacking the moral resources to deliver a statement on its own account, Channel 4 has opted for hiding behind a mask. It is not so much a hatred of Christianity but a mood of moral disorientation that encourages the desire to devalue the meaning of Christmas. Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that some church leaders should interpret this response as symptomatic of a bias against Christianity. ‘This country disbelieves in itself in an amazing way’ observed the Archbishop of York.

Much more here

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