UK Politics

Christmas Thoughts

The Kerala News reports on the decision by the British culture secretary to send official Christmas cards with representations of Hindu dancers and mosques featured on them but without any religious content of the Christian kind.

Perhaps I’m wrong in even describing Tessa Jowell’s envelope-fillings even as “Christmas” cards since they wish the receiver “Seasons Greetings”.

So what ? Isn’t it better to avoid offence to receivers who might not be Christians ? Isn’t Seasons Greetings more inclusive than the alternative ? Don’t I have anything better to do than attack a well-meaning Labour minister for something as trivial as this ?

To answer the first question we have to ask ourselves who actually takes offence at receiving Christmas cards ? None of the Muslims or Hindus I know are offended by Christmas, in fact they are among the most enthusiastic senders of Christmas cards and don’t, as far as I know, curse under their collective breath the senders of cards which contain traditional religious images. Ditto my Jewish friends. Similarly I didn’t take offence when I lived in Japan and received cards which were Shinto or Buddhist in theme.

Seasons Greetings may appear to be more inclusive than Happy Christmas but if no one is offended by Christmas it’s just bland and bureaucratic-sounding.

What makes me uncomfortable is not just the cultural cringe which leads some people to think cut and pasting symbols of other religions onto Christmas cards is inclusive rather than what it actually is – comic at best, culturally insensitive at worst.

There is something else which is bugging me and that is the fact that this sort of thing is only one example of how post-modern and well-meaning Europeans are cutting themselves off from our enormously rich intellectual inheritance.

I’m not a believer and I’m perfectly aware of the evils which have been carried out in the name of religion but the fact is a great deal of important European (and hence world) ideas have been expressed in ways which are only understandable to those with a knowledge of Christianity. I’m not just talking about the Christian Socialists in this country but the whole mainstream of European intellectual endeavour. Without knowledge of our common culture the past really is another country.

I’m reminded of this when attempting to decipher the symbolism in Italian paintings or when trying to get the most out of Bach. It’s perfectly possible to like a painting or a cantata without knowing how it ended up as it did but, at the same time, you are missing something important.

Much more important is the fact that philosophy was disguised as theology for hundreds of years and that politics hid under the skirts of religion. This means that those who know nothing of how the economic and social arguments of the day were phrased will miss the significance of much of European history, thinking it not “relevant” to the 21st Century.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a lot we can learn from studying – to give just one example – European fiction written prior to the secular age. The trouble is, much of it relies for effect on the readers knowledge of biblical allusion. Appreciating the relevance does take hard work if you struggle with what would have been obvious to those more familiar with bible stories.

Considering images from the bible to be inappropriate on a Christmas card is an example of a thought process which is in effect severing us from our past. I don’t want to live in the past but I do want to be able to understand what our ancestors said about it. The reason we’re here now living the way we do is partly because some of these people’s ideas were so powerful.

The invaluable task of understanding our past so that we can build on it is not served by people like Tessa Jowell who want to do away with the three wise men, shepherds etc no matter what her motives are.

Those of us who are interested in moving society forward should not be forced to start from the year zero when we don’t have to. Reinventing the political and intellectual wheel is a waste of our time when there are more important tasks we can be applying ourselves to.