Did you hear that “the EU” tried to cancel Christmas? It’s not true, but the claim went viral in several languages and ended up even drawing comment from the pope.
It all started in October, when the European Commission's equality commissioner, Helena Dalli of Malta, unveiled a document of guidelines for European Commission staff.
The 32-page manual for “inclusive communication” offered guidance for how staff should use language in the workplace, and in public communications like presentations or press releases. Communication should “reflect the diversity of the EU population”, it read. Panels should be balanced. Events and documents should be accessible. Stock images should be diverse.
It had pages on “gender”, “LGBTQI”, “racial and ethnic background”, “disabilities”, and “age”, with suggestions for statements to avoid and alternatives that could be used instead.
The trouble began in the section called “cultures, lifestyles or beliefs”. There, the manual advised staff to “avoid assuming that everyone is Christian”. A statement like “Christmas time can be stressful” could be avoided in favour of “Holiday times can be stressful” or “ . . . for those celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah”, it suggested.
“First name” should be used rather than “Christian name”. And staff should avoid picking names only from one religion if using an example or story: perhaps “Malika and Julio”, instead of “Maria and John”.
There is no shortage of hostility around Brussels towards the idea of "political correctness"
A copy of the manual made its way to Francesco Giubilei, a conservative writer and polemicist in Italy. He broke the story on November 28th in the right-wing tabloid Il Giornale, with the headline: "In Europe it is forbidden to say 'Christmas' and even to call oneself Maria."
“The European Commission goes so far as to cancel Christmas by suggesting not to use the phrase ‘the Christmas period can be stressful’,” Giubilei wrote. “A desire to eliminate Christianity that goes further with the recommendation to use generic names instead of ‘Christian names’.”
The scoop caused pandemonium on the Italian right.
"Our history and identity shall not be erased," the right-wing nationalist leader Giorgia Meloni declared on Twitter, sharing an image of the Il Giornale headline. A group of centre-right Italian MEPs wrote to the commission calling for the document to be changed to "respect the Christian roots of the European Union".
A senior Vatican official publicly criticised the document. Multiple Italian news organisations, and later international ones, repeated Il Giornale's framing that "the EU" wanted to "cancel Christmas".
The Chinese whispers reached the plane of Pope Francis. As he returned from a visit to Greece, one of the journalists on board asked him to comment on "the EU document on Christmas".
“You mention the EU document on Christmas,” the pontiff replied. “In history, many, many dictatorships have tried to do it,” he added, warning the EU against being “a vehicle of ideological colonisation”.
It’s likely that few people commenting publicly on the document at this point had seen a copy of it. After all, it wasn’t public. It was an internal staff document that was leaked to a journalist. The main information about it in the public domain was the misleading press reports.
The commission's job is to draw up proposed legislation for the EU, for the consideration of the European Parliament and national governments. It would be easy for a casual listener to assume that with this "EU document", the commission had attempted to set draconian Christmas regulations for the EU's entire 450 million population.
It took less than 48 hours from the publication of the Il Giornale story for the commission to retract the manual. It was withdrawn even before the representation of Catholic bishops to the EU could issue its complaint that the document showed “anti-religious bias”.
“It is not a mature document and does not meet all commission quality standards,” Dalli said in a statement, adding that “the guidelines clearly need work”.
The rapidity of the retraction reflects that the document had not been received with universal acclaim within the commission itself. Like any institution, it does not lack people within it who would roll their eyes at such an initiative.
There is no shortage of hostility around Brussels towards the idea of "political correctness", which is sometimes viewed as an import from the United States.
One anonymous commission official used the opportunity to attack the Maltese commissioner in a comment to Politico, describing her as a political lightweight within the commission, and her manual as “surrealism” that “deconstruct(s) the most elementary rules”.
Il Giornale cleared its front page to celebrate its victory, with the triumphant headline "Europe returns Christian". Francesco Giubilei posed with a copy, declaring to his Facebook followers "we continue to fight for a Christian Europe".