Christmas, political correctness and cultural identity
Published by Martin Kleppmann on 29 Dec 2007.
Usually I try to keep postings on this blog within my normal topic boundaries (usability, mobile and
business/entrepreneurship) in an attempt to avoid the rambling and inconsequential nonsense which is
seen on so many web sites. Please excuse me if I depart from this rule on this one occasion, to
write a few (highly subjective, slightly opinionated and not very well qualified) comments about
this time of year instead.
Christmas. A fairly bizarre cultural phenomenon in modern times. We have
almost developed a kind of love/hate relationship with it: it seems that most of the world
celebrates it in some form, although its meaning and background has become thoroughly warped.
Everybody seems to have strong opinions about it, many of which are somehow contradictory. People
look forward to it, but at the same time can hardly bear it any more. Snowy landscapes and fat men
in woolly coats (Santa Claus and variations) are standard Christmas imagery even in countries where
the temperature never drops below 15ºC. People accuse each other of cultural imperialism and then
just celebrate anyway.
A Christian festival, versus other religions
Sometime in the past, it
was quite simple: Various European peoples had a festival sometime around the winter solstice in
pre-Christian times (a natural time of year for a celebration), then in Christianity it got
associated with the birth of Jesus. Still it was considered to be vastly less important than
Easter, and even the
Epiphany is still more important than
Christmas day in many parts of the world today. Makes sense that the most important thing about
Jesus is that he died and rose again (Easter), second most important is that the news about him was
spread throughout the world (Epiphany) and third most important is that he was born in human form
Gradually over the 19th and 20th centuries Christmas in western cultures gained
economic significance, as merchants realised that selling presents was a great way to make lots of
money. Nothing fundamentally wrong with making money, except that those people who wanted to stick
to the religious orientation of the festival had to make a bit more effort to retain the spiritual
dimension in spite of an environment which favoured the economic dimension. People criticised that
Christmas shopping stress and a desire for a spiritual experience of
Advent didn’t go together very well, but if you wanted to
combine them you could still get by quite well.
Then within the last 10 years or so, there was an
increased move towards a secularisation of Chrismas, sparking off the so-called
Christmas controversy. The US retail industry
was presumably thinking along these lines: “If we advertise Christmas presents, we can sell presents
to Christians (plus a few cultural hangers-on). But if we advertise culture-neutrally and secularly,
we can sell them to everybody.” There were also secularisation moves by public authorities, who
feared that putting up Christmas trees (but not a
nine-branched candelabrum or
oil lamps, for instance) would be seen as religiously and culturally
patronising to non-Christians.
In principle, paying attention to the cultural sensitivities of
others is a very good thing. However, there’s also a massive risk of losing one’s own cultural
identity, accumulated over centuries, in the process of excessive political correctness. When you
start referring to Christmas as “Primary Giving Season” or replace Christmas wishes with nonsensical
babble such as “Share the Magic of the
Season” or “Pass the
Cheer”, I am sad and feel
that something precious has been lost.
Personally, I am delighted if somebody wishes me a happy
Chinese New Year or
Kwanzaa or whatever. I must admit that I don’t have much of
an idea what the significance of most of these festivals is, but that doesn’t spoil the fact that
somebody would like to share something with me which is special to them, and I consider it to be an
honour that I may share a bit of their culture despite being pretty clueless about it. And it gives
me an opportunity to learn more about that particular culture or religion, to begin to understand it
better and to embrace its way of life.
Similarly I don’t feel particularly bad about wishing a
happy Christmas to atheists, Jews, Muslims etc. – I just hope that they will understand my good
intentions and translate it into something appropriate in their own culture. My deeper reasoning
behind this is that even if I were to try to be culture-neutral, I would probably not succeed
anyway. For instance, I may be wishing “Happy Holidays” to somebody for whom December is a month of
mourning. Or my invitation to share the magic of the season may go to somebody who hates Christmas
and doesn’t find it magical in the least. If somebody wants to be offended, they are going to be
offended, no matter how neutral you try to be. So in the interest of sanity, I’ll rather be
culture-specific in the first place (and apologise afterwards if somebody does take offence for some
Shops and consumer brands all over the world seem to have agreed on
an almost universal imagery of Christmas (or rather the “holiday season”, since many of the symbols
are secularised). Visiting Hong Kong in December a few years ago, I found quite astonishing how
these European/North American style decorations had been adopted with virtually no modification for
local customs. Probably it’s mainly the shops which have developed these visual clues to highlight
the fact that they sell products which may possibly be suitable as presents.
involve snow (pictures of snowy landscapes, snowmen, fake snow, snowflake shapes), fat bearded men
of some sort (Father Christmas, Santa Claus, …), reindeer, sleighs and bells, stars and fir trees.
While some of these may have religious origins (stars spring to mind as a biblical motif),
Santa Claus was consciously designed for advertising in modern
times. Hardly anybody thinks about these symbols today,
taking them for granted.
Not many of these symbols are appealing to me, but they must match other
people’s tastes, otherwise we wouldn’t get so much of them. The curious thing is just that, unlike
language (which, as discussed above, does not lend itself well to culture-neutral treatment), visual
symbols seem to actually transcend cultural boundaries very successfully. Maybe that’s because
imagery is less specific, and everybody can associate something with it. It does not matter if
snowflakes are used as decoration by people who have never seen real snow in their life; it does not
matter that the “cute” pastic reindeer bear very little resemblance to
what real reindeer look like. The important thing
is only the signalling effect, telling shoppers that it is time to buy presents.
Snow is not
exactly a common feature in the Holy Land, where Jesus was born, so it does make you wonder where
this imagery originates from. I don’t know for sure, but I would not be surprised if quite a few of
the motifs originally come from Germany. Just before Christmas I visited the
Christkindlesmarkt in Nürnberg –
there in the biting cold, clutching
Glühwein in my hands, the darkness scattered with
thousands of lights, golden decorations glittering amongst branches of fir trees, angel figures
singing their silent praises through the frosty but delighted crowds – there, in this Christmas
market, a lot of the well-known Christmas images seemed to be appropriate.
I’m not saying that it’s
wrong to borrow these symbols from that ancient Christmas market and put them in a well-heated,
brightly illuminated shopping centre. There’s nothing holy about them, so if people like them, they
should use them. I only hesitate because I fear that commercialised imagery might trample over
older, more traditional symbols and suffocate them. For example, my mother goes to some effort every
year to find chocolate figures of
traditionally given on 6 December. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the figure for Father
Christmas/Santa Claus, but St. Nikolaus is shown with the insignia of a bishop (mitre and crosier),
and the tradition of St. Nicolas’ day is much older than Father Christmas. But because so few people
can actually tell the difference, more and more chocolate figures (such as
the one from Lindt) are now actually Santas and
not Nicolases. The lovely old tradition is in danger of being bulldozed by more modern imagery.
wonder if a shop which does not participate in the whole Christmas decoration mania will perform any
worse in its sales. Somehow I find it hard to believe that white plastic shavings (vaguely
resembling snow), tacky plastic Christmas trees etc. actually encourage customers to spend money. On
me they have more the opposite effect of making me want to run in the opposite direction, but I may
of course represent a small minority.
Finally a brief rant if you will allow.
If there is one thing I really hate about Christmas, it is cheesy Christmas music. I don’t even know
which I hate more: the soppy, sickeningly sweet arrangements of already bad traditional songs and
carols, or modern pop groups’ attempts at making a Christmas hit single. I honestly find it very
hard to imagine how anybody can bear this stuff, let alone enjoy it. Think about the poor shop
assistants who have to bear with endless repetitions of the same awful syrup for weeks and weeks on
end. If I hear bloody Christmas music in a shop, it instantly puts me in a bad mood and makes me
want to get out as soon as possible (or sabotage the sound system, or burn down the factory where
these CDs are produced). It certainly does NOT put me in a relaxed mood in which I will open my
wallet wide. Please, please just stop playing this crap, and the world will be a better
There is some good Christmas music too, as demonstrated by the
Festival of Nine Lessons and
Carols, for example. If you
really have to play something Christmassy, play something proper; even better just keep silence,
there’s enough sound pollution already.
Anyway, Christmas is over for this year. Somehow I doubt
though that my comments here will be outdated next year.