A few years ago, there was a movement to put Christ back into Christmas. The intention was to get away from the commercialisation and materialism of the season and recognise Christmas as a religious festival. For many people, especially children, Santa Claus is probably more associated with Christmas than the birth of Jesus. I have no problem with Santa Claus nor the giving of gifts. In fact, I rather like it. My own memories of Christmas are that it was a magical time and for parents who can provide some of that magic for their children it surely lays the foundation for happy childhood memories which will produce happy and confident adults. And this need not mean spending a lot of money. There’s no doubt that some people do go over the top and get themselves into debt by spending too much or giving too much. Often children have so many presents that they can’t cope or know what to play with. But gift giving is part of Christmas and I find it quite moving to hear people before Christmas ask questions such as – do you think so and so would like this? It’s a time when people think about others and try to find something pleasing for them. There’s a lot of love around in this exercise and the worry and fatigue sometimes involved in finding the right present is part of the love and part of the gift. It’s good too to see families enjoying the Christmas decorations and fun together. Recently a friend who is not Christian said he thought that society became kinder at Christmas time. That surely must be a good thing for believers and non-believers alike.
What I am a bit conflicted about is the transformation of Christmas into Winterfest. This year I have had more cards with ‘seasons greetings’ than ever before. I presume the intention is to be inclusive and acknowledge that people who are not Christian or religious are also celebrating what is now more of a cultural celebration than a religious one. But are we in danger of forgetting the origins of the festive season, of forgetting where society has come from and opting for a neutrality that denies diversity? Is there a danger of imposing a secularism that appears neutral but is in fact imposing a particular viewpoint that is in fact a belief and denying other standpoints? There’s no doubt that this has happened in religious societies and at one interfaith gathering many years ago I remember someone saying that at Christmas it looks as though the whole world is Christian and it’s easy to feel a bit marginalised. Now Scotland, like other societies, sees itself as secular and the government, in a report called Belief in Dialogue, has acknowledged that this means recognising difference and giving a voice to all. So, while it is good to recognise that not everyone is celebrating the Christian festival, is it not also good to remember that the Christian feast is the origin of the celebrations? – and my experience is that people of other faiths are happy to acknowledge this.
At the beginning of December, the European Union produced a 21-page directive on inclusive communication (to be withdrawn within days) which suggested that people should not use the greeting ‘merry Christmas’ but rather use ‘happy holiday’. On the feast of St Andrew at the end of November the First Minister of Scotland sent St Andrew’s Day greetings, saying “St Andrew’s Day marks the start of Scotland’s glittering Winter Festivals, which includes other seasonal highlights of Hogmanay and Burns Night”. Really? Why not mention Christmas – and Hannukah and Diwali and even the winter solstice? Could ignoring Christmas be denying our identity and traditions? Could ignoring the others be side-lining the diverse nature of our secular society by trying to impose a brand of secularism that is in fact neutral and not inclusive of diversity.