Putting the Christ in Santa Claus (Dec 27, 2007)

Happy holidays… er, Christmas… oh whatever

Perhaps it was that last, oh-just-one-more-thank-you eggnog at the holiday… er, Christmas party the other night, but I somehow found myself staring at my daily newspaper on Monday morning and nodding in surprised almost-but-not-quite agreement with our resident right-of-radical, right-even-of Don-Cherry, conservative Christian curmudgeon columnist Charles Moore.

Moore was railing on — and on — about the fact that “more and more seasonal observances are [being] purged of Christian references for fear of annoying or offending someone by mentioning the person whose nativity Christmas commemorates.”

It isn’t that I buy Moore’s larger argument that the War on Christmas, as he calls it, is being waged by a bunch of “militant secular humanists and atheists of the political left [who] cynically use religious pluralism as a strategic arguing point in pressing their anti-Christmas agenda.”

There aren’t enough oh-just-one-more eggnog-thank-yous in the entire season for me to buy that!

But after reading the latest war-on-Christmas dispatches from Ottawa’s Elmdale Public School, I couldn’t help but agree that something has gone terribly wrong with the noble notion of inclusiveness.

For this year’s Christmas… er, holiday concert at that elementary school, a few teachers decided to change one of the lines in Silver Bells, a seasonal, secular chestnut — you know, the Jesus-less one about “Santa’s big scene” in which “strings of street lights, even stop lights, blink a bright red and green as the shoppers rush home with their treasures” — from “soon it will be Christmas day” to “soon it will be festive day.”

Yuck.

My first, very different encounter with holiday multiculturalism came about 25 years ago when our oldest son, Matthew, who is now 30 and a hip-hop musician on the west coast, performed in his own first Christmas concert — at least I think that’s what they called it in those days — at L’Ecole Beaufort, Halifax’s then-only French immersion public school. The giddy, freshly-scrubbed, best-behavioured elementary school students sang Christmas carols, Hanukkah songs, songs in celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid, a haunting rendition of the traditional native Huron Carol and even — for the more militantly milquetoast secular humanists among us — a bring-tears-to-the-eyes version John Lennon’s wishful, wistful Imagine.

It was a wonderful event — an unembarrassed celebration of difference within a shared sense of community.

What went wrong?

In Ottawa, the principal of Elmdale School says her choir teachers decided to change the Silver Bells lyrics to “reflect a more generic flavour” because they wanted “to be as inclusive as they can be because not everybody is celebrating either Christmas or Hanukkah.”

Whatever their goal — and my guess is that these weren’t the militant secular humanists of Moore’s more fevered imaginings — it clearly all went horribly awry. There was a national outcry after an irate parent squealed to the press, the school’s telephone answering machine then filled up with messages that “were not pleasant” and school officials found themselves denounced on radio call-in shows and websites. Before it was over, someone had even called in a bomb threat on the day of the concert.

In the end, the choir dropped Silver Bells from its repertoire entirely, replaced it with the supposedly less offensive Frosty, the Snow Man, and not only closed the concert to the media but also, perhaps accidentally, to some parents too.

The problem, it seems to me, is that those probably well-meaning teachers at Elmdale confused inclusive with generic, their desire to be blandly inoffensive with the consequence of being offensively bland.

Christmas, like Hanukkah and Eid, is not generic. It is not only a symbolically significant religious celebration for believers but also a secular occasion for feasting, family and generosity for the rest of us.

Even those who don’t celebrate “either Christmas or Hanukkah” — or, in my case, who celebrate both — can acknowledge the spirit and reality of the celebrations of others without in any way diminishing or demeaning our own festivities.

The answer is not, as Charles cheers in his column, for militant pro-Christian groups like the Alliance Defence Fund and the Campaign Against Political Correctness to up the silliness ante by turning well-intentioned but misguided folks like the Elmdale choir teachers into “cultural fascists.”

We just need to lighten up, pour oh-just-one-more eggnog-thank-you and have ourselves a happy… whatever! Cheers.

http://www.stephenkimber.com/new

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, Kimber’s Nova Scotia, appears in The Sunday Daily News.

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