Can we get Polly Toynbee to do the alternative Queen’s Speech?
My thanks to the kind reader who sent me the programme from this year’s Christmas carol service at the Old Royal Naval College chapel in Greenwich. It was written by the Rev Jules Gomes, chaplain of the college, and of Trinity College of Music, and also of the University of Greenwich.
Here is the good chaplain’s Christmas message: “More Christians have been martyred for their faith in the last century than in any other period of church history. Yesterday’s Herod is today’s Richard Dawkins and Polly Toynbee, seeking the total extermination of all forms of Christianity. The great irony is that the greatest opposition to Christ comes from so-called broad-minded people who seek to ban Christmas so that people of other faiths are not offended.”
I had at least five calls from broadcasters this year inviting me to say it would be a jolly good thing if Christmas were rebranded Winterval. That myth began years ago when Birmingham city council tried to spread the festive season across the long winter – though it never replaced Christmas, which came with official celebrations in the middle of it. But the Winterval myth lives on.
British Christians yearn to be martyrs, but frankly atheists are a pretty toothless substitute for lions. In a daft parliamentary debate this month on something called Christianophobia, Mark Pritchard MP accused the politically correct of banning religion from Christmas cards and advent calendars: “Many shoppers find it increasingly difficult to purchase greetings cards that refer to Jesus.” Alas, market forces are probably rather stronger than humanist plots: with only 7% of people in church of a Sunday these days, Santa and the Snowman trump the nativity.
More silliness is reported in Private Eye (not online). Note how basic pragmatic measures become symbols of a monstrous conspiracy.
In early December, Healey Primary School in Rochdale sent a note home to parents of 4 to 7-year-old pupils: ‘Please could parents send just one Christmas card to the whole class rather than asking the school for a whole class name list. This is to avoid tears and tantrums which often occur when Christmas cards are distributed.’
When an outraged parent contacted the Rochdale Observer claiming that this was ‘political correctness gone mad,’ her comments were promptly reported beneath the headline: ‘School bans Christmas cards.’
A spokeswoman hastened to point out that cards were ‘in no way banned’ from the school, which was currently preparing for no fewer than three festive productions and a carol service. ‘The cost of so many cards is prohibitive for some families and we feel that children are often pressurised to act in the same way as their peers,’ she explained. ‘In addition, some children are missed out and feel very upset when this happens.’
How was this reported when it reached the national press the following week? ‘Furious parents and campaigners last night slammed the politically correct brigade for spoiling the true meaning of Christmas,’ roared the Express. ‘Festive cards are being banned in schools… the season of goodwill is being ruined by Scrooge-like officials fearful of offending other faiths or worried about health and safety rules.’ Its sister paper the Daily Star, meanwhile, kept up its own tradition of ignoring all the facts with the front-page headline: ‘Ban on Christmas cards in case they offend Muslims!’
Which brings us nicely onto Toynbee’s next point.
All this would just be seasonal silliness if it were not cover for a more sinister drumbeat. The right has taken to flying the “Christian” flag in ways that suggest none too subtly that foreigners – Muslims – are stealing our culture and traditions. “They” are stopping “us” celebrating Christmas and teaching Christian stories to our children. When Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, appeared on GMTV this week, although as usual he denied any atheist plot against Christmas, the theme in about 3,000 emails afterwards was: “We are not Muslims, our culture must not be silenced to avoid offending them.”
Exactly: if Sanderson didn’t mention Muslims, how did we get from Christmas to Muslims?
The BNP has been quick to cash in. In the Christianophobia debate in parliament, the reported case of a BNP Christmas card was raised, “which portrays the holy family on the cover and inside are the words ‘Heritage, Tradition and Culture'”. Pritchard warned television firms: “The fear of violence from a particular faith group should not be grounds for hand-selecting or targeting other faith groups who may choose to protest peacefully.” Fear of Muslim violence is killing off peaceful Christianity, he implies. But blaming mythical secular political correctness is usually a cover for more sinister suggestions that “our way of life” is under threat from foreigners.
Hastening to defend themselves against the charge, Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, assembled imams, rabbis, Sikh and Hindu leaders to protest that they had no objection to Christmas, asserting that they sent Christmas cards, they liked cribs, and “it’s a great holiday for everyone”. Leave Christmas alone was the message, addressed again to the hypothetical politically correct secularists.
But we are innocent. It is the Christians who are stirring this dangerous pot, inventing non-stories, yearning for martyrdom – and worse, fermenting an outraged sense among the mainly secular population that they had better call themselves Christian because, as the BNP says, British “Heritage, Tradition and Culture” (read Kultur) are under threat from Muslims. While pretending to attack us, covertly these Christians stir resentment against immigrants.
Time for the contemporary martyrs to shut up.
1) No atheist or secularist that I know of would even consider banning Christmas. Indeed, out of all my heathen friends I don’t know a single one that does not celebrate the festival.
2) As we’ve seen, Muslims and Hindus don’t really care either.
If you’re interested, you can read a Christmas message from secular fundamentalist Terry Sanderson.
This is what this hardcore atheist and modern-day Herod has to say.
But now, as the holiday approaches, and the time comes for reunions with family and friends, for the exchange of presents and for the sharing of good food and drink, we can live in peace with each other, at least for these few days. The churches are open for those who want them, and so are the boozers. Christmas carols will be sung and Monopoly played. Telly will be watched and snoozes taken. For those lucky enough to be in the warmth of good company, there will be a central feast and the sound of children enjoying what is, essentially, their special time.
Our friends from Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu backgrounds will be able to share in the excitement and enjoy the holiday, too. The mischievous forces that try to make life difficult for them should be challenged, but over the holiday time, we can try to put aside those human-made differences and just let it be. Let’s leave the point-scoring and the arguing until next year.
Despite the claims of some, this mid-winter holiday does not uniquely belong to one section of the community. Indeed, there is no reason why atheists can’t enjoy it with a clear conscience. I certainly will and I sincerely hope you will, too.
So, whatever your religion (or lack of it) and whatever your circumstances, I wish you a very happy Christmas – as well as a peaceful solstice time and a jolly holly-day.