Every year at about this time the controversy over the word “Christmas” begins anew. The battle in the United States usually concerns crèches on public property or carols in the schools, and is fought in the packed trenches of the federal court system by groups like the ACLU.
In the UK the argument is over the replacement of Christmas by “Winter Holiday”, “Winter Festival”, or — worst of all — “Winterval”. Our British correspondent JP has prepared a special report for this
Christmas festive season.
War on Christmas: The ‘C’ Word
The story originates with the adoption by Birmingham City Council in 1997 and 1998 of the term ‘Winterval.’ While Winterval may have been laughed off the stage, the concept has metamorphosed, I believe, into the seemingly-innocuous Winter Festival — In a recent example, while the word ‘Christmas’ still appears in the main text, it has been displaced from the headline itself : “Elgin prepares for its winter festival.”
The ‘War on Christmas’ continues; it remains a question of being alert to how it manifests itself in the public square. For example, on my recent bus journeys down Oxford Street and Regent Street I have been paying attention to shop window displays: most big stores and companies continue to use the word ‘Christmas’ in their displays: Vodafone — Happy Christmas; Boots — Christmas Shop; Selfridges — Merry Christmas. However, most of the smaller stores, while including some form of Christmas display, avoid the word itself.
There is no Christmas at United Colors of Benetton. Or Apple either.
A couple of stores are notable for having no Christmas display whatsoever — United Colors of Benetton, Oxford Circus, and Apple, Regent Street. Perhaps these companies are too large to bother with quaint, local customs. Perhaps they are a bit slow off the mark (Christmas lights were switched on 4 November, Oxford Street and on 9 November, Regent Street) and will put up some decorations in due course, possibly December. Perhaps they are making a religio-political point of dubious taste, part of the process intended to “systematically erode Christianity from public view” (Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, 11 November 2006, BBC). Perhaps a boycott of these stores would be an appropriate response.
Below is a series of media items and local government announcements concerning the “Winter Festival”. They are presented in chronological order, beginning in 1998.
Church leaders have clashed with a council over its decision to call Christmas festivities Winterval.
Birmingham City Council used the phrase to describe its programme of festive family events over Christmas and the New Year. The change is being made because city council officials hope to create a more multi-cultural atmosphere in keeping with the city’s mix of ethnic groups. But critics have attacked the move as political correctness gone mad and have accused council officials of trying to take the Christ out of Christmas.
Winterval has particularly exasperated the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Rev Mark Santer. In a message to all the churches and clergy in his diocese, he said: “I wonder what madness is in store for us this Christmas? “I confess I laughed out loud when our city council came out with Winterval as a way of not talking about Christmas. No doubt it was a well-meaning attempt not to offend, not to exclude, not to say anything at all.” The message continues: “Now it seems, the secular world, which expresses respect for all, is actually embarrassed by faith. Or perhaps it is Christianity which is censored.”
His views were shared by his colleague, the Archdeacon of Aston, the Ven John Barton. “It is a totally unnecessary example of political correctness to avoid sensitivities people simply do not have,” he said. A council spokeswoman defended the name. “Birmingham City Council wants people to celebrate Christmas. Christmas is the very heart of Winterval,” she said. “Far from not talking about Christmas the events within Winterval and the publicity material for it are covered in Christmas greetings and traditional images, including angels and carol singers.” She said the council had drawn attention to the city’s cathedral during the festival by placing Christmas lights in the trees around the building.
Example #2: Welcome to Winterval [22 December 2000]
by Polly Toynbee
The National Secular Society sends out its Christmas message, a studious little work examining the many origins of the Christmas myth. This is highly recommended reading for all those who have been following the Daily Mail’s outrage at finding “political correctness” creeping into “traditional” Christmas worship.
The Mail has discovered Joseph missing from the crib in many shops — a stable single parent family scene. (Joseph was always a problem. Why is his genealogy traced back to King David, when he was only the step-father? No, no answers on postcards please.) The Mail fulminates: the BBC is putting on an alternative nativity play with Jesus as a girl. Birmingham Council calls Christmas “Winterval”. Primary schools have introduced Three Wise Women instead of the Kings. Vicars are dropping “gender-biased” hymns such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. A Baptist minister has written a carol portraying the Virgin as a “blessed teenage mother”. A Greenwich comprehensive chose John Lennon’s So This Is Christmas instead of a carol — and an academic has declared the snowman a symbol of masculine dominance.
The National Secular Society’s learned work examines this “traditional” Christmas story that is so much under threat and finds that it was always a moveable feast, morphing from one religion to another, using the same stories and symbols from one culture to another to celebrate the rebirth of the sun. Since we are now a secular society — only 7% churchgoers — Birmingham was right: winterval is exactly what we do celebrate. As for the particulars of kings, stepfathers and shepherdesses, we are only following age-old tradition in adapting the story to modern purposes.
The universality of the myth makes sense. Rebirth in the dead of winter is a universal (northern hemisphere) cause to celebrate. Whatever stories and romances are woven around mythical infants, the wonder of human birth remains a humanist sentiment: creative primary school teachers are quite free to add and change it as much as they like. If, in the great religious melting pot of Rome, the Christian story eventually won out over the rest, it was St Paul’s marketing skill in adding sophisticated populist elements: the child is poor, rich and poor alike bow down to it, worldly wealth not his domain, unlike the royal virgin births of earlier religions. Christianity was nothing if not opportunist.
Instead, perversely, we seem to be marching in the opposite direction. Church schools are about to get a great fillip from the state, with David Blunkett wanting them to run yet more schools: they already have a third of the total, doing well in league tables because so many cream off the most involved parents. Muslim state schools have now opened, unavoidable unless Britain followed the US constitution and banned religion from state education. What about extra subsidies for atheist schools?
House of Lords reform threatens to give more power to religions — 26 C of E bishops may be joined by 10 other faiths, as unrepresentative, illiberal and philistine as most were on section 28. Meanwhile in a country where 90% of the people practice no religion, charity law ensures all taxpayers contribute to church funds via tax-breaks. “The advancement of religion” has been a charitable purpose since 1601, though the law never defined religion.
These days the Charity Commission lets in any religion with “a dominant deity” — so pantheists are out (but, oddly, Odin worshippers are in). The National Secular Society has no charitable status because it campaigns against religion, which is considered “political”. Merry Winterval.
NSS, Our Pagan Christmas, £2 ,from 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL.
Example #3: The phoney war on Christmas [8 December 2006]
Luton council, we are told, has banned people from celebrating Christmas. Birmingham has renamed the season Winterval. A Reading man has been told to take his decorations down. There’s only one problem with the ‘PC campaign’ against Christmas — it’s pure nonsense. By Oliver Burkeman
Around this time of year, as the nights draw in and carol-singers don their hats and scarves, David Franks can count on receiving several enraged telephone calls and letters demanding to know why he has banned the people of Luton from celebrating Christmas. The exact circumstances in which the Liberal Democrat leader of Luton borough council came to outlaw centuries of Christian tradition are unclear, not least to David Franks, but the central facts are always the same. He and his fellow councillors have forcibly replaced Christmas with a “Harry Potter-themed” event called Luminos, to avoid offending minorities.
The Luton controversy recurs annually, but this year something in the tone of it has changed. According to Christian leaders, vigorously backed by rightwing newspapers, Franks is no longer a fringe figure, but one crusader in a fully fledged national war against Christmas. “The crazy gang who constitute the local council at Luton,” as the commentator AN Wilson called them in the Daily Mail last weekend, now have sympathisers across the country: at the council that erased all mention of Christmas from its Christmas cards, in the town that banned a generous millionaire from erecting his annual charity lights display, and in the Scottish hospital that refused to distribute a Christmas CD because it mentioned Jesus, to name just three. Almost 75% of British employers, according to a survey released this week, have banned Christmas decorations for fear of offending other faiths, and don’t realise they have a legal obligation to celebrate Diwali and Eid, whether they like it or not.
“The dead hand of political correctness is throttling the life out of the festive spirit,” thundered the Sun, announcing, like the Mail, a front-page campaign to defend Christmas. (In Birmingham, the paper noted despairingly, “Christmas has been rebranded as Winterval.”) Spurred on by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and by the Christian Muslim Forum, which has launched a national battle against the de-Christianising of Christmas, local leaders of three faiths wrote to Franks in Luton this week. They warned darkly of the “anger within religious communities” that might erupt if he did not “refrain from renaming the Christmas festival using another (non-religious) name”.
All of which might be reasonable, were it not for a few awkward facts. Luton does not have a festival called Luminos. It does not use any alternative name for Christmas. When it did, once, five years ago, hold something called Luminos one weekend in late November, the event didn’t even replace the council’s own Christmas celebrations, let alone forbid anyone else from doing anything. Similarly, Christmas is not called Winterval in Birmingham. The Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children never banned a Christmas CD for mentioning Jesus. And Chester council’s “un-Christian” Christmas card says — as cards have done for decades — “Season’s Greetings”.
The Campaign Against Political Correctness, headquartered in Kennington in south London, bases its pitch to potential members on the argument that Britain is approaching boiling-point in the backlash against misguided attempts to avoid offending minorities. (Its website features several heroes of the anti-PC movement, including Jim Davidson, “22-year-old rapper Plan B”, and Sir Cliff Richard, who says that “this whole PC thing bugs me like mad”, as well as Bruce Forsyth, who is praised for not bowing to pressure, from unspecified sources, to avoid using the word “nitty-gritty” on air.) “The difference now is that people are angry about it,” says Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, who is the campaign’s parliamentary spokesman and a loud critic of the War on Christmas. “People used to laugh about it, but that’s changed … they’re angry with white, middle-class liberal do-gooders with some kind of guilt complex and too much time on their hands.”
Judging by the Sun’s Christmas defence campaign (headline: “Kick ‘em in the baubles!”), they are particularly angry in the village of Sonning, near Reading, where “a court banned a millionaire from putting up his annual charity light display outside his home”. As with so many aspects of the PC war on Christmas, trying to find the truth about Sonning’s frustrated philanthropist feels like chasing a shadow across a misty field: the factual basis for the controversy continually evades your grasp, then evaporates entirely.
The winterval deniers are at it again. Ten years after Birmingham City Council invited ridicule by airbrushing out the word Christmas from its official celebrations, there are still some people eager to blame everyone other than local authority leaders at the time for bad publicity arising from the winterval fiasco. Memories were reawoken this week when the council announced it had invested in a new set of Christmas lights, with a distinctive Christian theme. Angels and stars will twinkle on city centre streets this year. To underline the point, a press release detailing the decision included supportive comments from Canon Stewart Jones, Rector of Birmingham and spokesman for Believing in Birmingham — a network of church communities in the city.
This, quite naturally, invited comparisons with events of 1998. Some bloggers are adamant that the council back then was the victim of a London-led media conspiracy designed to do down Birmingham. One correspondent suggested a combination of lazy journalists and publicity-hungry bishops was to blame.
Let’s look at the facts. It is true that the city council never admitted it had rebranded Christmas in order to avoid offending non-Christians. On the other hand, the council failed at the time and has done ever since to explain why it did what it did. The best explanation was that winterval represented a collective name for the events held from mid-November through to the first week in January.
To most of us, that’s Christmas. Bizarrely, the council stated it didn’t want to risk bad luck by keeping Christmas lights up beyond 12th night.
The timing is also significant. The winterval fiasco, in 1998, came to be seen as one of the last, fatal, mistakes of Theresa Stewart’s period as the left-wing Labour leader of the city council. She was overthrown by Albert Bore, on a modernising ticket, the following year. I’m not saying winterval did for Theresa, but it was symptomatic of Birmingham’s general loss of direction at the time.
The fact remains that winterval was regarded as a ridiculous attempt to avoid mentioning Christmas in case ethnic minorities might take offence, and is still seen in that way by many prominent people. The last thing Birmingham needed was a reason for the city to be branded as a memebr of the loony left-wing council club. Winterval provided just that reason.
In May 2007 this newspaper reported Aaron Reid, executive director of Birmingham Professional DiverCity, regretting the invention of the name winterval in case Christmas “offends people”. It was “political correctness gone mad”, he added. In December 2007, the Archbishop of Wales denounced winterval as “atheistic fundamentalism”. Most pointedly, John Sentamu said he believed the purpose of winterval was to “systematically erode Christianity from public view”. The lesson from winterval is that perceptions do matter. The council could in 1998 have killed the controversy stone dead by abandoning such a meaningless title. It did not do so, and is still living with the loss of reputation today.
Michael Chubb, the man behind Birmingham’s much-criticised Winterval festival, dismisses claims that it was an attempt to abolish Christmas
Whilst marketed as Winterval, each event had its own marketing plan but clearly it was Winterval that drove the initiative. Google Winterval and you get nearly 18,000 results.
Investigate further and you have an amazing array of personal comments from pukka broadsheets to off-the-wall blog sites to Birmingham’s own Post: “Christmas has been rebranded Winterval”.
Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian in 1998 [sic 8 December 2006] investigated thoroughly and found that claims of a PC campaign against Christmas were “pure nonsense”. He went on: “Perhaps the most notorious of the anti-Christmas rebrandings is Winterval, in Birmingham. According to an official statement from the Council, Winterval — which ran in 1997 and 1998, and never since — was a promotional campaign to drive business into Birmingham’s newly regenerated town centre.
“It began in early November and finished in January. During the part of that period traditionally celebrated as Christmas there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the Council House, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.”
None of that, though, was enough to prevent a protest movement at the time, whose members included the then Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, as well as two members of UB40”.
When asked about the de-Christianisation of Christmas, Julian Bond of the Christian Muslim Forum, admitted that evidence was hard to come by. He added: “You know, we were in Birmingham for a meeting the other day and there’s a big Merry Christmas banner in the middle of New Street.”
I think it is now time to put my head above the parapet and declare why I have been asked to write this article. Pretty simple really, I was the one that coined the term “Winterval”. I was Head of Events for Birmingham, responsible for over 400 events a year from St. George’s Day to Fireworks Fantasia, international street festivals to… yes Christmas. As an events division (the largest in the UK at that time) we were always seeking to improve the service to the Birmingham community and whilst we aided specific communities to develop their own festivals, Diwali, Chinese New Year, St Patrick’s Day to Gay Pride, mainly because we had the professional expertise to help those communities realise their ambitions, our remit extended to all festivals and events. All were to be totally inclusive and the majority free or at an affordable price.
So to Winterval. The events division were charged with putting on 41 days and nights of activity that ranged from BBC Children in Need, to the Christmas Lights Switch On, to a Frankfurt Christmas Market, outdoor ice rink, Aston Hall by Candlelight, Diwali, shopping at Christmas, world class theatre and arts plus, of course, New Year’s Eve with its massive 100,000 audience. With funding from sponsors and with very many more events to market, the decision was to bring all the events together under a generic banner under which they could all sit. Whilst marketed as Winterval, each event had its own marketing plan but clearly it was Winterval that drove the initiative.
Leaving Birmingham, to another job, I started to notice the ridiculous banshee that pervaded Winterval. So as originator of Winterval, what are my thoughts?
A BIRMINGHAM City Council boss has warned workers NOT to be politically correct. Coun John Lines, who runs the housing department, has spoken out after fearing the local authority would be ridiculed over its treatment of Christmas. The council faced international mockery when it attempted to re-brand Britain’s best known-holiday as ‘Winterval’. Now it has emerged the local authority’s PC-brigade has struck once more and again attempted to flout tradition and stop workers from using the word ‘Christmas’.
Official notice boards set up to allow the Council House staff to leave goodwill messages and cards during Christmas were officially labelled ‘Holiday Season Notice Boards’. A message to staff read: “As there are many religious and cultural festivals taking place it is intended the boards are for anyone to use.” The note outraged Coun Lines, a senior Tory and anti-PC crusader. And he has launched an inquiry. He stormed: “I am very disappointed that despite the change in culture at the Council House the politically correct brigade are still hovering in the background. I have spoken to those involved and assured them they do not offend anyone by calling it Christmas and I don’t want to see any of this nonsense again. No-one, of any faith or background, is offended by Christmas — it is all in the heads of a few politically correct Guardian-reading idiots. Birmingham was opened to ridicule over the Winterval episode. I want the message to go through the City Council that we are proud of Christmas.”
The Council provoked outrage when, in 1997, it renamed the season of good will ‘Winterval’ to make it more inclusive of all faiths. Council bosses argued that it was a marketing exercise which included major Muslim, Hindu and Jewish celebrations in a seasonal package alongside Christmas.
But this cut no ice with the public and church leaders who slammed it as anti-Christian. The then Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, said: “I confess I laughed out loud when our city council came out with ‘Winterval’ as a way of not talking about Christmas.” And more recently the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, a former Bishop of Birmingham, has blamed the episode for ‘eroding the Christamas message’. He spoke out against what he termed ‘Wintervalis’ on several occasions, including when non-religious imagery was put on Royal Mail stamps and bland ‘Season’s Greetings’ messages were placed on Government cards.
The city has struggled to live down the Winterval label ever since. And the current ruling Tory-Liberal Democrat leadership has made every effort to ensure that the city marks a traditional Christmas. Even the official city centre Christmas lights were updated to include Christian symbols such as angels to leave visitors in doubt that Birmingham is not ashamed. As recently as 2006 the council was trying to live down the episode when it took out a full-page advert in national newspapers to convince the world it still Celebrates Christmas. A Birmingham City Council spokesman said: “We responded to a request by staff to provide some space on existing message boards for greeting cards, so that instead of sending their colleagues dozens of cards they could save some money and do their bit for the environment.
Comedian Stewart Lee tells Radio 5 live’s Richard Bacon why he’s prepared to defend political correctness as part of his comedy act. Lee cites the example of ‘Winterval’, an initiative by Birmingham City Council to combine religious celebrations which some believed was an attempt to ban Christmas. The star of 90’s cult comedy show ‘Fist of Fun’ claims society is in ‘a better place’ for following the values of political correctness.
Example #8: NewcastleGateshead — What’s on [Undated, 2010]
NewcastleGateshead’s drum strikes a festive beat to add some seasonal sparkle to the twin cities at this magical time of year. The festive fun includes outdoor ice-skating, performances, pantomimes and Christmas markets. Events include the return of the award-winning Enchanted Parks for its fourth year when Gateshead’s Saltwell Park will be transformed into a magical and memorable evening winter walk. Kick starting this year’s Winter Festival is the Frost Fair and Ouseburn Open Studios and celebrate New Year’s Eve in style at the Winter Carnival Parade which this year brings some traditional South American and South Asian carnival warmth to Newcastle city centre.
Baron Bodissey adds:
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