Sunday, December 25, 2005

Don't mention the C-word: The word 'Christmas' is conspicuous by its absence in NYC

"Here in New York City, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. There are all the trappings: the trees, the lights, the tinsel. The radio plays Jingle Bell Rock, Santa is in his Grotto, and 10 mail-order catalogues, identical to the ones that arrived yesterday and the day before, arrive to remind us just how long it's possible to procrastinate and still get the goods on time. And yet, this year is different...there is something off about it.

The most obvious difference is the disappearance of the word 'Christmas'. I'm not talking about simply substituting 'Happy Holidays' or 'Season's Greetings' for 'Merry Christmas' on cards. It's almost as if the word never existed. Watch the TV commercials during an afternoon of American football, and 'Christmas' is conspicuous by its absence. Santa is there, the reindeer, the Christmas trees, but there's nary a 'Merry Christmas', just 'Ho! Ho! Ho! Happy Holidays'.

Christmas parties are 'Festive Holiday Gatherings' and even Christmas decorations have a strangely half-hearted feel. Witness the rising popularity of the snowman. These roly-poly men are everywhere, just bland enough to please most of the people most of the time. Stick a sprig of holly on a snowman and he's vaguely Christmassy. In a multicoloured scarf he's just an inoffensive ball of precipitation - supernatural, yes, but in a woolly, wintery sort of way.

Shopping for gifts, it's virtually impossible to find the C-word in advertising or displays. Visit any of the big-box retailers - Target, Walmart, K-Mart - and you will see few references to Christmas. 106.7 Lite FM, New York's soft rock radio station, is playing 'non-stop holiday music'. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is now simply referred to as 'THE TREE'. It looks a lot like a Christmas tree, it's popularly called 'the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree', but no one wants to go on the record saying that.

Personally, I'm not so shy. I love Christmas. Not enough to set up one of those year-round Christmas boutiques but more than enough to start humming Silver Bells in early November. Yet even I have wavered this year. Being an atheist, I have never sent cards with a picture of the baby Jesus or wise men or stars, but this year I find myself wondering who among the people I know might be offended by something as overtly Christmassy as Santa Claus and reindeer. In the dark night of my soul, I chose snowmen.

Of course, I'm not the first person to comment on the absence of Christmas at Christmas time. Conservative Christians are very sensitive to the rise of 'The Holidays'. In October, John Gibson, a commentator for Fox News, published a book called The War Against Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. He argues that liberals, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in particular, are at the forefront of a campaign against Christmas as part of a broader anti-Christian movement. He cites examples from across the country: a float featuring a nativity scene banned from Denver's Christmas parade; in Washington state a mother is prevented from serving her child's class a cake decorated with the words 'Happy Birthday Jesus'; in Maplewood, New Jersey, a class trip to see a performance of Dickens' A Christmas Carol is cancelled and performances of Christmas music prohibited.

For Gibson and others it seems there is a secularist conspiracy. Look more closely, however, and something different is going on. For one thing, the bans aren't always aimed at overtly religious symbols. They include Christmas trees, saying 'Merry Christmas', and decorations in red and green. More tellingly, they seem to be defensive responses to the threat of criticism rather than a premeditated effort. In most cases, school administrators and local bureaucrats have acted on the basis of a single complaint, or more commonly just in case someone might be offended.

These bans are unique and unprecedented. They far exceed any of the existing prohibitions on what can be displayed on public property without violating the American separation of church and state. Even the Supreme Court, the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution's first amendment separation of church and state, takes a softer line on Christmas. It has no problem with 'secular' Christmas displays featuring elements like reindeer or candy canes and even allows the display of religious imagery because it is representative of the origins of the holiday. The bans don't so much seek to take the Christ out of Christmas as to take the 'Christmas' out of the Christmas holiday entirely.

Why is American society so ambivalent about this Christmas? To put things in perspective, Christmas has been under attack for a while; it has been targeted for years by moralists and killjoys. We have been told how it is grossly commercialised, too materialistic and too unhealthy. We have been told how it puts us at risk of depression, strains our families and our pocket books. It is a testament to the enduring appeal of Christmas that no one has yet tried to ban it for health reasons.

The current assault on Christmas has its root in the politics of diversity. Over the past decade, diversity has become part of the lexicon of American culture and business. Every corporation espouses its commitment to achieving it. Diversity consulting has become a burgeoning industry, offering services in organisational development, human resources management, education, training , legal and 'crises management'. What is offensive or inappropriate is judged, not on the basis of actual complaints, but on the basis of standards set by diversity experts.

An article by Simma Liberman, co-author of the book Putting Diversity to Work: How to Successfully Lead a Diverse Workforce, is typical: 'Guess who's not celebrating Christmas this year? Millions of people in the United States. That's right. Tens of millions of Americans don't celebrate Christmas religiously, either as followers of non-Christian religions (Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews) or as individuals with no religious affiliation.. It used to be that being inclusive meant sending out politically correct "Happy Holidays" greeting cards and changing Christmas office parties to "holiday parties". Today, inclusiveness and diversity is about more than just changing labels and titles.'

To employers, Liberman suggests making the holiday party general with decorations that are not specific to any religion, or holding a New Year's party instead. To individuals, she advises plugging the word 'holiday' into Google and reading about other traditions and adding holidays like Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Ramadan and Diwali to calendars and PDAs to increase awareness of them.

The assumption is that celebrating Christmas inevitably excludes and possibly offends vast numbers of people. This seems unlikely. In the US many people, Christians, atheists and even a fair number of Jews, celebrate Christmas and up until recently most people were fairly relaxed about it. What's changed is that the politics of diversity is now so ubiquitous, we are simply no longer able to take any cultural event at face value...

More here


News from Nice in France

An extreme-right French group has found a way to distribute Christmas cheer only to a chosen few by offering homeless people free hot soup containing pork, which observant Jews and Muslims do not eat. The soup kitchen, set up at the harbour of this Riviera town, draws about as many protesters as poor people. Police stand guard between it and a Catholic charity group distributing vegetable soup outside their church.

Dominique Lescure, head of the small ultra-nationalist group distributing the soup, disputed charges by angry protesters on Wednesday evening that what he called his "patriots' soup" was meant to exclude Jews and Muslims. "I don't see why I should not be able to put pork, which has always played a major role in my country's cuisine, into a traditional soup that I want to distribute, admittedly, to my compatriots and European homeless people," he argued. "I'm not excluding anyone," he shouted in a heated exchange with a handful of jeering protesters. "We're tired of being treated like little Nazis. If a Muslim comes, I'll serve him, but the real poor these days are our people."

Standing nearby under bright Christmas lighting, a city official said he could do nothing about the controversial soup kitchen. "Serving soup with pork is not a crime," said deputy mayor Noel Ayraud.

The nationalist far-right is a strong fringe group in France, where its supporters feel under threat from Europe, globalisation and the country's five-million-strong Muslim community, the largest Islamic majority in Europe.... When he launched his soup kitchen in early December, Lescure said in a statement he wanted to help "our least fortunate blood brothers ... in this hour when the black tide of demographic submersion and free-market impoverisation is rising."

More here

No comments: