Given that we are blogging about issues connected with conflicting beliefs in contemporary Britain, it would be remiss of us not to deal with The Great Winterval Myth in the month of December. It now almost feels like a seasonal ritual, alongside the watching of A Muppets Christmas Carol and the over-consumption of Lindt balls; every year it seems that the The Great Winterval Myth emerges from hibernation, only to be energetically and effectively debunked. So, why does it keep coming back?
For anyone not familiar with the story, it goes something along the following lines (like the majority of urban myths it has multiple versions and embellishments): A local council have rebranded a previously Christmas Event “Winterval” because political correctness has gone mad, and they don’t like it. The identity of the “they” varies in the telling, depending on the group which is being attacked. The Muslim community are frequently the target, but blame for the outrage can also be directed at Jews, ethnic/cultural minority groups in general, or smug, Atheist Guardian reading lefties. However, in well over a decade of public debate on this issue, no instance of this actually happening has ever been substantiated.
Like most enduring myths, the tale has some relationship with real history, but a rather distorted version of it. In the late 1999s, Birmingham City Council held several winter festivals, combining a number of different religious and secular events over a period of a few months. Somebody innocently thought that “Winterval” would be a catchy term for this civic initiative, but rumours began to spread that the handle “Winterval” had been adopted because it was no longer deemed appropriate and acceptable to talk about Christmas.
As the correct version of events is now common knowledge, why does the mythic one persist in popular culture? The reasons are undoubtedly complicated. Clearly, there are groups who feel themselves disenfranchised, and respond to this by scapegoating others, particularly minority communities who already face prejudice. Although this is a very ugly reality, sweeping it under the carpet will not make it go away. Neither generosity nor bigotry are phenomena which respect social boundaries, and open and closed minded people can be found across the spectrum of British society (and indeed the planet). However, it is also true that chronic levels of deprivation and a daily struggle for survival, combined with a lack of educational capital, can prove a toxic mix for both individuals and communities, and we need to be better at tackling this. As a society we face common problems, and we must do our upmost to find collective solutions which affirm everybody’s value and dignity.
Wherever the problem lies, it is not with equality law, nor with local authorities trying to be inclusive. In fact, there is nothing about the current legal context which should cause people identifying as Christians to feel threatened, and those of us involved with public and human rights law must convey this message more powerfully. Properly understood, no applicable legal provision, either domestic or international, even hints that it would be problematic for State authorities to recognise Christmas and support its celebration (which is one of the very good reasons why they continue to do exactly that). The Court of Strasbourg has even gone as far as explicitly affirming that established Churches are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. We still have a religious Constitution which acknowledges the Christian cultural heritage of the UK; Christmas is not likely to be prohibited any time soon at the behest of lawyers!
Neither is there anything new about Christians celebrating Christmas alongside other religious communities in the area, who keep their own winter feasts. It is well known that the date for Christmas was deliberately fixed to coincide with Pagan festivals in Northern Europe. Neither is there a shred of evidence of non-Christian faith groups clamouring for Christmas to be suppressed and relegated to the private sphere. In fact, the Muslim Council of Great Britain issued their own light-hearted and positive response to the Great Winterval Myth, with ‘Keep Calm: Christmas is not banned’ greetings cards and a message of warmth and reassurance.
In rational terms, whatever the underlying issues may be, they are not with either the legal context, nor the presence of diverse faith groups. Politicians, sociologists and others need to look at why the Great Winterval Myth seems to be lasting longer even than the never-ending left-over turkey. In the meantime, we can be grateful to live in a context where the law respects everyone’s religious freedom.
Jól (Yule): the Viking Winter Holiday (Jackson Crawford 17/12/2017)
Winterval is coming: Busting the myths about banning Christmas (The Huff Post 19/12/2013)
The Phoney War on Christmas (The Guardian 8/12/2006)
Keep Calm, It’s Christmas (Muslim Council of Great Britain)
Darby v Sweden 1990