Secularists don't need to wish you a happy Winterval


Who knew Waterford would turn out to be a world centre for aggressive secularism? It’s true. For the last week, that fine city has been hosting one of these notorious “Winterval” jamborees that we’re all supposed to be so annoyed about. As I understand it, anybody who mentions Christmas or the baby Jesus is to be burned – not crucified, obviously – publicly before Reginald’s Tower.

We’re joking, of course. The event’s website features the words “Ireland’s Christmas Festival” at the very top of the home page. There isn’t a great deal of God-bothering. But Winterval takes in many of the traditional festive activities: Christmas markets; screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life; and visits from ingratiating fat blokes with white beards.

Still, the name of the festival does hand ammunition to those paranoiacs who enjoy faking concern about the “War on Christmas”. In 1997, Birmingham City Council set forth on an initiative, aimed at co-ordinating various winter events, innocently titled, yes, Winterval. Almost immediately, various right-wing newspapers began complaining that – to appease Islamicist terrorists and political fellow travellers in North Korea – the council was working to annihilate Christmas.

As recently as September of last year, the Daily Mail was still arguing that these West Midlands Scrooges had attempted to abolish the most wonderful time of the year. The paper later printed a correction, acknowledging that “Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas”.

The War on Christmas nonsense has much in common with equally paranoid campaigns against imaginary EU regulations. In the past, Eurosceptic newspapers have argued that Brussels has sought to restrict excessively curved cucumbers, ban soya milk and rename brandy butter as “brandy spreadable fat”. If things continue the way they’re going, the gulags will soon be groaning with unfortunate citizens who dared to mount an Advent calendar or play conkers without wearing a crash helmet.

Whingeing about the destruction of Christmas has never got beyond an ambient murmur in this part of the world. In the United States, however, the ritual has become as significant a part of the season as, well, the Christmas celebrations that still take place conspicuously in every American city. As December begins, the loons at Fox News – yet to be executed, despite last month’s Marxist coup d’état – pull out their dusty hoods, huddle round the campfire and tell each other terrible tales of oppression and suppression.

On the Fox Nation website, reporters have taken time off from whingeing about voter fraud to muse upon the apparent banning of Christmas trees from certain parts of a senior citizens’ residential complex in California. A Christmas concert has been cancelled in Hawaii. A postal worker has been told to stop dressing as Santa. Yikes. If it goes on like this there will soon be some tiny corner of the western world where we can, for a few brief moments, escape Yuletide mania.

The supreme commander of the resistance forces in the War on Christmas is surely the ever-irascible Bill O’Reilly. Nothing gets his jackboots clicking more energetically than the politically correct attacks on wee baby Jesus and poor old St Nicholas.

Ironically, O’Reilly’s attempts to convince the public that various liberal commissars have managed to wipe December clean of Christmas recall nothing so much as the propaganda broadcasts of Soviet dictators. Never mind the starving peasants: crop production is up 75 per cent. Ignore the huge fir trees, multicoloured lights and incessant TV broadcasts of Jingle All the Way: Christmas has been ruthlessly eroded.

In fact, the corporate engines of capitalism have done more to subvert the original meaning of Christmas than any left-wing councillor could hope to achieve in another two millennia. All that mystical stuff about magic babies, dancing shepherds and talking donkeys (do I have this right?) just gets in the way of the attempts to flog stuff. This is not altogether a bad thing.

I will reluctantly admit that the phrase “happy holidays” does grate a little. There is nothing wrong with the notion of constructing greetings that seek to avoid offending non-Christians. But “happy holidays” is too American, too utilitarian, too shallow in provenance.

In one sense, O’Reilly has a point. Christmas is still everywhere about. But, thanks to the acquisitive instinct and the sheer implausibility of the Christian myth, it is now largely celebrated as a secular jamboree. We get to eat pies, read Dickens and watch The Great Escape. We no longer have to attend freezing late-night services, entertain vicars or contemplate eternity. The phrase “happy holidays” shoulders no resonances of that welcome victory. In contrast, the traditional greeting now carries, for the committed secularist, delicious knots of intertwined irony. Happy Christmas. We won.

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