By Remona Aly
29 November 2016
Tis almost the season of joy, mince pie overdose and a now traditional, yet bizarre, dash of controversy. What Christmas would be complete without it?
While the weather is turning frosty and the festive season draws close, some panicky employers are being advised to chill out by David Isaac, chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Isaac suggests they shouldn’t go overboard in avoiding religious sensibilities at Christmas and that they should adopt a “common-sense approach”. Sounds reasonable enough.
This comes after news that some business owners are fearful of sending Christmas cards that cinema chains have banned an advert containing the Lord’s Prayer for fear of offending non-Christian audiences, and that employees are being vetoed from calling a Christmas tree a Christmas tree. It’s like we’ve entered a politically correct Nightmare before Winterval.
But at least it’s not quite 1647 when puritans banned the holiday entirely.
The paranoia of offending sensibilities whips up negativity quicker than you can say “Swedish Christmas lights”. Yes, that fake story about Sweden banning public Christmas light displays “to avoid offending Muslim immigrants” went viral across social media with more than 43,000 reactions, creating more anger at the alleged intolerance of Muslims. The real story was that Christmas lights would be banned from being placed on poles this year in Sweden for safety reasons.
This fake story is indicative of the strained times we are trying so hard to survive. However well-meaning these particular employers are trying to be, their PC-driven fears could harm the very minorities they are desperately trying not to offend. The last thing we need is another “Muslims ate my hamster”-type headline. I’m all right, honestly, my faith is still intact even while uttering the words “Christmas tree”, I don’t break into a cold sweat on hearing the Lord’s Prayer – which I’ve known by heart since childhood –and to let you in on a little not-well-kept secret: quite a few of us non-Christians love Crimbo.
Invitations for Halal turkey dinners over the Christmas period have already started WhatsApping their way in from Muslim families. My first Christmas card is nearly always from my organised atheist friend. And my Sikh mate is giving me the gift of watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – what better present could a Sikh buy a Muslim for Christmas. Amazon ad, eat your heart out.
In fact, Christmas as we know it now already has a history of multiculturalism. The turkey itself was supposedly brought to the UK through trade with Native Americans. Decorating the Christmas tree is a German custom and was popularised here in the 19th century by Prince Albert. Gift-giving at the winter solstice was a Roman tradition. Stockings apparently came about through the Dutch tradition of hanging out their clogs for Sinterklaas – St Nicholas (who by the by was born in modern-day Turkey). And that’s without mentioning that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew.
And this year, to put the angel on top of the tree, we have Bake Off’s Nadiya Hussain cooking up a festive feast as part of BBC Radio 2’s Christmas line-up.
Traditions bring people together and strengthen us as a society. When Christian, Jewish, Sikh and agnostic friends marked Eid festivities at home with me earlier this year, it didn’t mean they were confused, but that they wanted to acknowledge its importance to me, as well as dive into some Eid grub. Sharing in the Shabbat rituals with Jewish friends or wishing Hindu friends a happy Diwali won’t make me lose a sense of who I am, but enriches my own sense of faith and makes me appreciate the broad religious and cultural landscape of Britain.
But of course, there are non-Christians who won’t feel comfortable with saying, “Happy Christmas”, or with being in a nativity play, and that’s totally fair enough and up to them. They shouldn’t be treated like weirdoes, nor should they be labelled with that grating word, “intolerant”.
Yet if employers take unnecessary pre-emptive measures in assuming their non-Christian employees will get mortally offended by calling a massive tree put up at Christmas a Christmas tree, it turns up the heat on an already volatile climate, and does a lot of members of religious minorities – such as me – no favours. For me, Christmas, like many faith traditions, is about the values of compassion, hope, giving, family and joy, as well as, of course, special-edition food. So I’ll still send Christmas selfies with the turkey, and wish goodwill to all souls, if that’s OK. And wish everyone who celebrates it, marks it or widely acknowledges it, a very merry Christmas.