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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 (Christmas).

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 Hanukkah or Diwali or 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 reason).

Christmas symbols

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.

Symbols invariably 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 St. Nikolaus, 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.

I 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.

Chrismas music

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 place.

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.