Wednesday, December 19, 2001
The Chronicle Herald

The premier who saved Christmas

By Brian Lee Crowley

PREMIER Gary Doer isn’t much known outside his home province of Manitoba, but he deserves to be. He has just saved Christmas.

His act of heroism is all the more surprising, given that his New Democratic Party has, in recent years, been in the vanguard of the movement to placate a series of narrow special-interest groups by pretending that Canadians have no past and no cultural traditions.

Nothing could better illustrate this cultural capitulation than the decision made in Manitoba in the 1980s not to have an official Christmas tree at the legislature. Oh, they still had a tree, with coloured lights, at this time of year. But heaven forfend that they should call it a Christmas tree. No, it was a “multicultural tree.”
Not any more. Mr. Doer has decreed that it is OK to call it what it patently is: a Christmas tree.

Those who think that any display of the cultural heritage of Canadians whose families have been here longer than a generation or two is a travesty will no doubt rail at this “cultural insensitivity.” But Mr. Doer should, on the contrary, be applauded for recognizing that one can be welcoming of new traditions and new cultures without having to abase, debase or efface one’s own.

Christmas is an interesting case study. There are those who believe that any official reference to Christmas confers special privileges on one religion and, in effect, excludes non-Christians from any participation in the festivities. In many public schools across the country, the school play can no longer be on Christmas-related themes, and exchanges of Christmas cards are frowned on. The ultimate sanitization was the multicultural tree.

But there are two ways one can celebrate traditional events like Christmas in a society that is striving hard to open itself to new arrivals whose cultural traditions are different. One is the politically correct route, celebrating every other tradition as if it is a precious, awe-inspiring glimpse into another world, while treating local traditions as anachronistic embarrassments best swept into the dustbin of history.

Or the local traditions can evolve to become more “inclusive,” while still preserving some of the character and aromas of the past.

Christmas, in my view, is going through exactly this second evolution. People decry the holiday’s loss of Christian spiritual significance, but then the bulk of our society has grown away from the Christian worldview in general. The meaning of Christmas has been part of that evolution. Stripped of theology, Christmas hasn’t become merely an orgy of commercialism. It is also the time we set aside each year for families to be reunited. It is the time we encourage in one another little acts of generosity and caring. It is a moment to reflect on the universal values of peace and goodwill toward our fellow human beings.

Christmas is not diminished by this distancing from its Christian origins. Christmas itself was in many ways a compromise by the fathers of the early church with a world marked by a very different spiritual tradition. If you read the clues in the biblical account of the birth of Christ, it is clear that He was not born in December at all, but probably in the spring.

Yet in the hostile world of pagan Rome, Christianity needed to soften the edges of its exotic innovativeness. One strategy was to make one of the church’s main festivals fall at the same time as the Saturnalia. This traditional Roman holiday was marked by much merry-making and adorning of the temples with such green things as could be found in December. It is also when days are at their shortest, and the world is a cold and unfriendly place. People need a little diversion and cheering up right now. It is a natural moment for a big party, something the pagan and Christian traditions could find to agree on.

The Christmas tree is itself a remnant of paganism. It reaches back to the mythical Scandinavian ash called Yggdrasil, or the Tree of Time, whose roots reached to heaven and other places of spiritual power. The Christian tradition of decorating a green tree in the home to mark Christmas originated in Germany, and was the subject of grievous disputes in many parts of the English-speaking world. As I recall, it was regarded by many as unholy idolatry until some time in the 19th century.
Those who think Christmas has no meaning unless we’re all sniffing incense at midnight mass are just as wrong as those who think that having any truck or trade with the holiday is incompatible with being true to another religion. In a supreme effort of cultural openness, Christmas is evolving into something quite new, but growing out of its pagan and Christian roots. And, as Gary Doer reminds us, it’s still Christmas.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected]