Thursday, December 21, 2006

A season of offence
4 Days to Christmas

The Christmas story began on a very discourteous note. The angelic hosts bypassed the high officials, the political leaders, the bourgeois who's who, the business magnates, and instead, chose some lowly shepherds to proclaim the news of the Messiah's birth. If I was a big cheese in Palestine, I would have been seriously offended that such important information was not conveyed to me first but, instead, was given to the riff raff. I would have considered it to be a personal affront, a breach of protocol and would have demanded nothing less than a written apology.

The thing about Christmas is that it has always been, somewhat, offensive. The virgin birth, for instance, was not something that would have earned Christ any brownie points from religious fundamentalists and moral watchdogs of any generation. Even his choice of an obscure little town like Bethlehem in Palestine for his birth and not any of the big cities in any of the civilisational hotspots like Rome, China, India or Greece was a bit odd, to say the least. Not a great PR move if world revolution was on his agenda.

Even today, Christmas has maintained its capacity to offend, and now it is the turn of the pundits of political correctness to see red whenever Christmas cruises into their radar. Some want to ban any explicit expressions of Christmas' Christian background, and re-brand the festivities into something else. Or at least they tried and it didn't work. Some want to either dilute or sideline it completely so that it doesn't exclude people of other faiths from the festivities and that no offense is caused to their religious sensibilities. Controversies surrounding Christmas festivities have been around for a long time, and are not likely to go away anytime soon.

But this little discussion on the Red Cross' ban on Christmas nativity decorations reveals how the response has evoked some mixed reactions, and opposition to the ban has come even from non-Christians.

And this is the very point some people are making - if the word "Christmas" has to be banned because it would offend non-Christians and if it so happens that non-Christians are not offended, then what?

Now I live in Bahrain, a bona fide Islamic country, and here Christmas decorations are not banned and, instead, there is open acknowledgment of Christmas in shops, malls, hotels, supermarkets as well as the media. In fact, for the past four years the Manama based Hussaini Drawing Society for Islamic Arts has been organising a major arts festival and competition to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. Although this years' event was washed away by the heavy rainfall we experienced this year, nevertheless, the idea was to hold this event specially during Christmas to promote religious tolerance in this country.

Now the idea of not offending people of other faiths is very noble and, let me add, commendable; but I'm not sure if 'banning' the word Christmas is going to achieve this objective. For instance, it is bound to create an unnecessary backlash from unlikely sources who have their own petty - and mischevious - agenda.

Of course, the root cause of this controversy lies in whether or not to honour and celebrate the birth of Christ. The assumption being that Christ is the one that will offend and so it's best to delete His name from the celebrations. It's rather tricky. On one hand, everyone knows that Christ was not born on 25th December since the gospel accounts do not mention any dates. After Christianity traveled to the west and became part of the establishment there, earlier pagan celebrations of the winter solstice were given a Christian colour and "Christmas" soon substituted earlier festivities. Hence, there have been persistent Christian opposition to "Christmas" celebrations as well and, most notably, during Oliver Cromwell's Puritan regime. But the thing is, over the centuries, Christmas has been celebrated in honour of Christ's birth and the pagan origins of 25th December have not remained the main highlight of these celebrations.

Now what should be done about it?

If there are those who wish to remove Christ from the "Christmas" celebrations, they have already made their choice. And I have no qualms about how they want to celebrate 25th December. But if there are those of us who wish to honour Christ's birth on this date, then, I don't see any reason why anyone should protest. If there is freedom to believe or disbelieve, then, there ought to be freedom to celebrate or not to celebrate.

Of course, there is, also, the question of not offending non-Christians, and in my opinion, the best way to do so is by examining other sensitive spots that are routinely ignored. I can think of unnecessary wars of aggression and occupation as well as senseless cartoons depicting revered figures as a good place to start as far as snuffing out offensive spots is concerned.

It will definitely be less cosmetic than what is currently offered. It will be more substantial, and hopefully, more long-lasting. And isn't that what we need to create 'peace on earth and goodwill towards men'?

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