Bah, Humbug? U.K. Red Cross Bans Christmas Symbols
EDINBURGH, Scotland — Catholic bishops, Muslims and politicians have attacked the banning of references to Christmas by both a leading charity and the Scottish Parliament.
Staffs at the 430 Red Cross shops in Britain have been told not to set up Nativity scenes, Christmas trees or decorations with Christian symbols because they might offend Muslims and other non-Christians.
Meanwhile, civil servants at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood (a place name that, refers specifically to the holy cross of Jesus) have banned the phrase “merry Christmas” from their official cards for the same reason.
Red Cross chief executive Sir Nicholas Young defended the decision.
“It has always been a policy at the British Red Cross not to display materials of an overtly religious nature in shop windows or elsewhere,” he said. “Doing so runs the risk of identifying us with one particular faith.”
Young said the organization had never been associated with any religion in accordance with its principles of impartiality and neutrality.
“The British Red Cross has not ‘banned Christmas,’” he said. “Our volunteers and staff are welcome and actively encouraged to celebrate their own particular religions and festivals whenever and however they please.”
He added that the international organization had a “unique role” in ensuring the safe passage of civilians, medical staff, messages and relief supplies during conflicts.
“To do so successfully, to be trusted by all sides, it is essential that we are not seen to be linked with any political groups, religious organizations or particular communities,” Young said.
Labor peer Lord Ahmed, one of the country's most prominent Muslim politicians, said it was “stupid” to think Muslims would be offended by references to Christmas.
“The teachings from Islam are that you should respect other faiths,” he said. “The Muslim community has been talking to Christians for the past 1,400 years.”
John Deighan, parliamentary spokesman for the Scottish Catholic bishops, called on Christians to register their disapproval of the Scottish Parliament's ban on Christmas cards by sending courteous cards to George Reid, the presiding officer whose role is similar to that of the Speaker of the House of Commons.
“It's another attempt to jump on the bandwagon that is out to marginalize Christianity,” Deighan said. “There's no sense to it and no one supports it except some unnamed officials who thought the phrase ‘merry Christmas’ would offend. What is offensive is this ban — we should not accept these sorts of decisions or the one made by the Red Cross.”
Peter Luff, Conservative member of Parliament for Mid Worcestershire, argued the bans might in fact cause offense to people of other faiths.
“British Muslims, Hindus and Jews have no objection to the celebration of Christmas festivals,” Luff said. “Indeed, many people of other faiths choose to send their children to Christian church schools because they value the spiritual and moral basis on which those schools operate.”
Luff added that the values of faith were shared across religions.
“People of other faiths also want Britain to remain a country in which Christian values, which are largely shared with the other major faiths, are upheld,” he said. “They don't want us to sink into a morass of amoral secularism. They should do what many schools in Worcestershire now do and celebrate Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah and Eid.”
Commenting on the Red Cross ban, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham said, “Many Christians will feel distressed by the decision of the Red Cross to ban the symbols of the Christmas feast. People of genuine faith are not offended by signs of sincere faith.”
“I doubt whether the Red Cross will achieve its stated aim on neutrality by this course of action,” the archbishop added. “I think the Red Cross would do better to show respect to each faith. In that way it would win and not lose support from people of faith.”
However, Lou Henderson, a spokesman for the Church of England, refused to condemn the Red Cross decision.
“It's difficult to see how a reasonable person could object to Christian symbolism at the time of a Christian festival,” Henderson said. “However, a lot of the work the Red Cross does is in parts of the world where people are not reasonable. It's a matter for them as to what they display in the shops.”
The ban on Christmas decorations in Red Cross shops could be seen as indicative of how Christianity in a multi-faith and increasingly secular Britain is losing its influence.
And it is not the first time attempts have been made to eradicate the Christian meaning of Christmas. In 1998, the Birmingham City Council renamed its Christmas festivities Winterval, a decision that was attacked by Church leaders in the city.
Partly in response to this year's anti-Christmas initiatives by the Red Cross and the Scottish Parliament, Cardinal Keith O'Brien called Nov. 29 for a national effort to re-Christianize Scotland and urged resistance to the tide of secularization, especially concerning the celebration of Christmas.
At a national Mass to mark his recent appointment to the College of Cardinals, the archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh used his homily to defend Scotland's Christian values and to urge Christians in other denominations and all people of good will to do likewise.
“Even in recent days we have seen examples of attempts to de-Christianize our country,” Cardinal O'Brien said. “A major charity refused to allow its shops to sell products that have a Christian theme in the run-up to Christmas. Further, the great majority of Christmas cards have no mention of the word ‘Christmas.’ Mention is simply made of ‘seasons greetings,’ as if we were singling out this ‘winter season’ as a time of special celebration.”
At the Mass in St. Mary's Cathedral, he concluded with a call to “all our peoples to reconsider the basic Christian message that has been handed on and lived in our country for almost 2,000 years now.”
He also urged every local authority in Scotland to erect a Nativity scene in their area at Christmas.
“I think it only appropriate that there be a Nativity scene at the center of the celebrations of each of our communities,” Cardinal O'Brien said. “Without this there is left a gaping hole at the heart of the season of good will.”
Greg Watts writes from London.
- Dec. 14-20, 2003