Happy winter festival? No, it’s definitely Christmas

I have, of late, grown weary of the constant talk of ‘winter festival’. I first noticed it this year on CBeebies of all places. My son had settled down to watch the CBeebies Christmas play, the Snow Queen. Lo and behold, many references to ‘winter festival’.

It seems I am not the only one who has noticed the not-so-subtle shift from Christmas to winter. As Jeremy Walker pointed out on twitter:

My wife also picked up on it. Her immediate reaction was, ‘but Jews and Muslims and others aren’t offended by the word, or concept of, Christmas’. Indeed, they are not. But, despite the claims of some to the contrary, the shift is not to protect the feelings of Jews and Muslims throughout the land. Jews and Muslims are no more offended about Christmas than anyone else is about Hanukkah or Eid, and these folk have no problem saying Eid Mubarak in their programming, advertising and general chit-chat.

No, dear reader, the shift from Merry Christmas to Happy Winter Festival is not to protect the feelings of Muslims and Jews. The only people suggesting it is so are those who make it their number one hobby to implicate Muslims, Jews or both in whatever scourge they are able and those who are seeking a cover for their true motives. Muslims and Jews are not remotely offended by Christmas; it is the secular-humanists who froth with moral outrage. Those who want to see all vestiges of religion removed from public sight and preferably eradicated altogether, it is they who are offended and insist upon Winter Festival.

Just yesterday, David Robertson called on the BBC to remember its Christian roots. He was not interested in asking the BBC as a Christian broadcaster to deliver Christian material to a Christian nation – it isn’t Christian and nor is the UK. Rather, he called on the BBC to stop openly mocking and deriding Christianity and to allow Christians – particularly Evangelical Christians for whom it saves its most fulsome contempt and caricature – to speak for themselves. You can read here for examples of how the BBC has failed in its duty to ‘ensure that its output and services overall provide a duly accurate and authentic portrayal and representation of the diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom’.

I am not here to advocate for the ‘real meaning’ of Christmas. Eddie Arthur helpfully explains here why that is neither for us to do nor all that helpful. What I am asking is that we acknowledge the reason why we celebrate Christmas at all. It is not simply because we fancied a winter festival.

‘Wait! Wasn’t Christmas just a pagan festival adopted by the Christians’, I hear you cry. I suppose it depends how far back you choose to go, doesn’t it? But, maybe (depends who you ask). However, and we must be very clear on this, we do not celebrate Christmas because the Romans once celebrated Saturnalia and we felt left out. It may, or may not, be true that is the reason why Christians first mooted a celebration at that particular time. But, it can’t escape anyone’s notice, nobody is raising a glass to Saturn or holding plays about the blessing of agriculture in their local primary school.

No. The reason we celebrate Christmas today is that our country has been historically Christian for c. 1400 years. We are culturally steeped in the Christian religion. We don’t celebrate Christmas because the Romans historically celebrated Saturnalia; we celebrate Christmas because the UK – along with the rest of Western Europe – is historically Christian.

We all happily use the days of the week (all referring to Anglo-Saxon gods) and months of the year (typically referring to Roman deities) whilst rightly recognising we are not glorifying or worshipping those gods. That is not how language works and nor is it how culture and society function either. Words change their meaning over time; conventions likewise change their meaning over time. Going to the cinema was once considered seedy; few view it that way today. Going to a gig today does not carry the same cultural connotations as once going to a tea-dance. You can see this in relation to the places people go, the clothes people wear, the words people use. Wearing jeans was once seen as rebellious; when the Prime Minister can turn up wearing them it safe to assume that is no longer a cultural statement of any note. Words, conventions, societal norms and culture change over time.

This means that whether Christmas began as an excuse for a party to rival that of the pagans or not is neither here nor there. Today, indeed for at least 500 years and probably closer to 1300 years, Christmas has not had pagan overtones. There is a reason the vast majority of people get the 25th and 26th of December off work in the Western Europe but hardly anyone in Asia does. There is a reason even the most secular indigenous British person expects a holiday at the end of December and yet most Muslim immigrants happily continue working throughout December. The reason has nothing to do with Roman Saturnalia or Early English paganism; we shipped the vestiges of those out long ago. The reason is because Britain has Judeo-Christian roots. Until relatively recently, most would consider Britain (for good or ill) a Christian country, founded on Christian principles with the vestiges of Christian practice still very much evident.

Ask yourself why so many, despite having no religious affiliation the rest of the year, still consider it both traditional and culturally appropriate to go to church at Christmas? Why do schools up and down the land consider it culturally appropriate to hold nativity plays (no matter how shoddily run and far from the biblical text they may run)? Why do we continue to sing carols at Christmas, rather than songs lauding paganism? The reason isn’t all that hard to discern if only we have eyes to see.

So, it may be true that we wouldn’t have Christmas if some pagans weren’t living it up first. But we wouldn’t celebrate Christmas today if our country did not have a historic Christian heritage. This is, indeed, how traditions and cultural norms form. And, it bears saying, Christmas has been a remarkably consistent one.

So, enough of the Winter Festival stuff. I’m not saying you have to like Christmas nor do I insist you must partake of the religious if you are decidedly secularist. I am not saying you can’t enjoy Christmas and nor am I telling you how you must celebrate. But please, please don’t rewrite history to suit your own agenda and offer a wilfully thick understanding of how culture develops propped up with an equally shady justification of ‘the Jews and Muslims might not like it’. Let’s just acknowledge that Christmas is Christian, we celebrate it because of our Christian heritage and give thanks that Christianity has won you a culturally endorsed week off work.

It’s entirely up to you how you want to celebrate Christmas. But please don’t enjoy the fruits of Christianity whilst pretending that Christianity had nothing to do with it. Few religions are generous enough (or big enough) to let you utilise their stuff with gladness whilst defending your right to attack them with the very things they gladly lent you. It seems particularly right to continue in that vein at Christmas, good will to all men and all that. But remember, if you keep sidelining Christmas in favour of Winter Festival, you might just find the historic basis on which your Christmas festivities stand may come a cropper when some other bright spark says, ‘we’re not pagan’ and offers no basis for granting a holiday in lieu nor, incidentally, a credible reason for permitting you the right to think or feel differently.

Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas indeed!