LONDON – Christmas is coming – and has been, it seems, since mid-autumn. And just in case there was any sign of flagging, we now have Black Friday, an export from the United States, when we are all encouraged to drink deep of the modern Christmas spirit and shop until we drop.
In my old-fashioned way, I rather disapprove of celebrating “God rest you merry merchants” day. Since when were we happy for Christmas to dawn in early November? Festivals should happen only when they turn up on the calendar. When I was a boy, Christmas arrived on its eve, December 24. We went to mass at midnight. Afterward, my dad carried me home.
We woke up the following morning to open presents and prepare for our turkey lunch. The day after Christmas was a public holiday with cold turkey and ham to sustain us. Then it was back to work on December 27. That was that. Christmas was over, until December 24 the following year.
These days, whether you are Christian or not, the feast to mark the birth of Jesus Christ has turned into a winter bacchanal and a huge retailing orgy. Of course, there was always a commercial side to Christmas, if only for breeders of poultry and makers of greeting cards. But in most countries today, even those with few Christian citizens, the festival offers the chance for a holiday and a binge.
Sometimes, the symbols of the event become very confused. It is reported that one Tokyo department store marked the time of year for shoppers by hanging a huge crucified Father Christmas in its entrance hall. Apocryphal or not, the story gives us some idea of the cultural confusion that this midwinter religious feast can cause. It is all a long way from the stable in Bethlehem that we read about in the New Testament – a location now ringed by Israel Defense Forces barbed wire.
Of course, there are places where any sign of celebrating Christmas would trigger immediate persecution. In any part of Mesopotamia presently controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS), practicing Christians would lose their heads. At its worst, intolerance is literally murderous. But there are other forms of intolerance, infinitely less horrifying than that of jihadist bigots, that kill no one but demean us all.
Think of all those who don’t like to write or say “Happy Christmas,” lest they offend those who are not Christians. This self-censorship is rather insulting to Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. What cause for offense should they have when Christians celebrate their December feast? Does the celebration of Diwali, Eid, or Passover offend Christians? It certainly should not, although we can recall terrible periods of Christian intolerance and bigotry.
In Britain, we recently experienced an example of alleged political correctness that went well beyond such questions. The Church of England filmed various Christian groups saying the Lord’s Prayer, one of the foundations of Christian worship. The film was to be shown among the advertisements in cinemas. But the cinema proprietors banned the film on the grounds that it might give offense. Even well-known atheists criticized this mindless act of censorship.
Intolerance grows, and not just in societies run by jihadists and religious fanatics. Across university campuses, particularly in the US but also in Britain, students claim the right to deny others free speech or to rewrite history that offends them – a complete denial of what universities should be all about. Censorship and assertions of sensitivity eviscerate scholarship and, with it, the very idea of a university where pluralism defines the meeting of minds.
Disagreement is the heart of educated debate. Destroy that and you destroy the hallmarks of liberal order. As the great political philosopher Karl Popper argued, the only thing that we should not tolerate in an open society is intolerance.
The most extreme example of such intolerance today – which much of the world is now fighting – is the religious totalitarianism of ISIS. The extent to which this extremism is a product of Saudi Arabia’s energetic promotion of its Wahhabi ideology is for Muslims to debate themselves. But it is increasingly difficult for the outside world to overlook the impact of the Kingdom’s main export, alongside oil.
The best present we could give to the world this Christmas (regardless of whether we celebrate it religiously or not), would be to dedicate ourselves to championing tolerance everywhere. This will require us to address the inverted narratives of victimhood, which are often recruited to justify intolerance. The suffering from past wrongs does not justify current and future cruelty.
This Christmas, the open society is endangered not only from without, by the likes of ISIS, but also by (admittedly far smaller) threats at home – a gloomy reflection, I admit, as we prepare in churches and in high streets to enjoy another year’s winter party. So, in the spirit of tolerance: Happy Christmas, whether you are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, agnostic, consumerist, or Christian. As the Irish comedian Dave Allen used to say, “May your God go with you.”