Taking the Christ out of Christmas

“Christmas ‘should be downgraded to help race relations’”, was the headline that screamed out of the Daily Mail on 1st November.
Quoting a report by “Labour’s favourite think-tank” the IPPR, the Mail stated that the report “robustly defends multiculturalism” and that “If we are going to continue as a nation to mark Christmas – and it would be very hard to expunge it from our national life even if we wanted to – then public organisations should mark other religious festivals too.”
Working on the assumption that if the Mail hates something then I might quite like it, I sought out the original report. The IPPR kindly provided me with a copy – the Mail had somehow managed to get hold of it from the Tory Party (how odd).

So what does the report actually say?

After putting everyone’s DNA on a massive database that would make the Stasi blush and locking up innocent people for months without charge, will the government’s coup de grace be to ban Christmas?

The report is actually called ‘The Power of Belonging’ and Christmas accounts for one paragraph of its 50-odd pages. The central theme is that in order to achieve progressive liberal ideals and strengthen our democratic institutions “we need to do more as a society to foster a common sense of belonging and shared civic identities”. This is most likely what has rattled the formerly Hitler-supporting Daily Mail.

It’d be hard for me to argue with much of the report. “A multiculturalist politics should be combined with a politics of common national and local belonging”, is a sentiment that could be found in declarations from Molmutinus circa 2500BC to Alfred the Great. We’ve been struggling with multiculturalism since the seas rose and cut us off from the continent and we had no option but to settle where we were.
So when the IPPR suggest that “we need to find new and more inclusive sources of British national identity” the only controversy should be over the use of the word “new”.
What we actually need to do is reconnect with the intrinsically inclusive landscape based sense of identity that was once central to the idea of living on these islands. Accessing the ‘genus loci’ is something open to everyone regardless of cultural or ethnic origin.
The report does hint at this direction when it talks of a “new localism”.

But let’s go back to Christmas.
The Mail do not misquote. It’s just that they omit the sentences preceding and following the inflammatory aspiration to cull Santa.

The report states that our national institutions, calendars, museums “will inevitably be dominated by long-standing cultures and religions, which are likely to resonate more with native groups than with immigrant ones”. Fairly obvious.
Then after saying that public organisations should consider marking other religious festivals it says, “However, it is often difficult to draw the line between publicly recognising an ethnic or religious identity and encouraging uncritical submission to it.” That’s the get out clause, it’s a nice idea but not practical and would actually lead to greater division and possibly promoting ideas that run contrary to the liberal democratic ideal. Also, if schools marked every religious holiday celebrated by its pupils then the kids would hardly ever attend in very diverse areas like Leytonstone (for the record my son’s school closed for Diwali, and last year I dressed up as Santa to give out gifts to a gleeful class of kids containing only two white children – so this is already happening to some degree).

It’d be far bolder to assert that there is nothing in the least ‘traditional’ about the Christian Christmas.
From the holy to the Yule log, gift giving and Santa’s elves, Christmas is just the pagan winter feasting season common to many cultures hijacked by an obscure middle-eastern death cult muddled up with the Roman Sun God.
Recasting it as this makes Yuletide a unifying experience because we all live through the cold and dark of midwinter. All we need to do is rough Father Christmas up a bit, get rid of the Coca-Cola sponsored red garb, and once again he’s the ‘Wild Man’ that cultures across the globe used in their winter revelries.

You could achieve the goals of the report not by downgrading Christmas but just by taking the ‘Christ’ out of it.

Community cohesion and a greater sense of civic pride could be achieved not so much by tokenistically respecting the cultures of the newly arrived but by collectively learning to respect the culture of the original settlers – foreigners to us all most likely.

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Mystery Topographical Package and a visit to Deep Library

I was eagerly awaiting the post today – expecting an advance copy of Russell Brand’s brilliant autobiography ‘My Booky Wook’. Among its many virtues I think it will enter the canon of great London books – one particular passage where Russell leads a troupe of homeless men down a windswept Oxford Street in search of heroin put me in mind of a latter day Patrick Hamilton.
But along with said book came a slim brown envelope postmarked KT TW & GU. Inside a wonderful hardback Bartholomew’s road map of Britain ‘The Spotless Way’ – undated but most likely early 1950’s. Also a torn page from a book with a picture on one side of an old man of the road (the kind of character that Nick talks about in the video below) a man fused with his environment. On the reverse of the page a poem by William Barnes (the man in the picture?) ‘Aunt’s Tantrums’ written in rich dialect: ‘Why ees aunt Anne’s a little staid/ But kind an’ merry, poor wold maid!’. Also a leaflet advertising ‘Africa Contemporary Record – Available July 1975’.
No note, no name, no return address. I know nobody in that part of the country from where this was posted.
The resonance of the contents is multiple and profound. The Road Atlas and poem in dialect directly relates to a documentary idea I’m developing and yesterday got a call saying that I had a meeting to pitch the idea to a Tv channel. The title of the poem – I have an aunt gravely ill in hospital. The photo relates to the conversation I had with Nick last night.
Who could have sent it? A reader perhaps?

Last night I finally ventured inside Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘Deep Library’. I filmed an hour of Nick talking about his collection, a sample of it you can watch here. We’re polishing off a treatment for a full-length ‘Deep Topography’ documentary that we’ll shoot throughout next year. Please leave comments – we like them.

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