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Are we allowed to say Merry Christmas anymore?

We wish you a Merry Christmas. Or do we? As the year rapidly comes to a close and the deadline to bake a Christmas pudding has long passed, the words Merry Christmas have become laced with controversy.

Consider this headline from the Sunshine Daily: ‘No Christ in Christmas Next? School Jesus ban sparks fury’. The article covers a Queensland education department report that warns students in religious instruction classes against ‘evangelising’ to other pupils. The examples of evangelising included exchanging Christmas cards, referring to Jesus’s birth and making Christmas tree decorations.

The world’s biggest brands like Starbucks and Tesco are eschewing Christmas greetings in favour of more inclusive messages like ‘everyone’s welcome’. And the ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘War in Christmas’ debate even hit the 2016 US Presidential election when the then-candidate Donald Trump declared at a rally: ‘I told my first crowd in Wisconsin that we are going to come back here some day and we are going to say “Merry Christmas” again,’ he said. ‘Merry Christmas. So, Merry Christmas everyone. Happy New Year, but Merry Christmas.’

The debate around Christmas greetings reflects our increasingly pluralistic society. But is this trend a response to growing sensitivity for other cultures, a growing disinterest in organised religion or a culture war between liberals and conservatives?

According to Deakin lecturer in Politics and Policy, Dr Maria Rae, there’s evidence that supports the case for both a growing acceptance of different cultures as well as the use of Christmas as a ‘political tool’ by government and media. The latest ABS Census shows Christianity remains the most common religion, Dr Rae explains, but also evidences how Australia is becoming more diverse, and more people are identifying as non-religious.

We’re less religious as a society than ever

In the 2016 Census, ‘no religion’ was the most popular answer to the optional poll question asking citizens to nominate their religion. While Christianity still came out on top as the most common across its dominations, the rise in Australians who didn’t identify as being religious represented a big shift away from Australia’s traditional Christian identity.

While more and more products are labelled in inclusive terms like holiday trees instead of Christmas trees, or festive crackers instead of Christmas crackers, the changing place of religion in Australian society is seen as a major contributor to the increase in political correctness and more inclusive messaging – depending on your perspective.

'These debates about what to say at Christmas are often politicised as part of a culture war between conservatives and liberals.'

Dr Maria Rae, Lecturer, School of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Deakin University

‘This does not appear to be a real issue for most Australians with polls showing that they don’t want Christmas carols banned in schools.’ Dr Rae says. ‘It seems that this is an issue where some elements of the media and politicians are taking an Education Department policy review as a given that carols will be banned.’

Does the government use Christmas as a political tool?

According to Dr Rae, there’s more at play in the Christmas greetings debate than an increasing tolerance for people of different religions and cultural backgrounds. Citing US political scientist Dan Cassino, she argues ‘these debates about what to say at Christmas are often politicised as part of a culture war between conservatives and liberals.’

So when President Trump announced that he was bringing back Christmas, he was ignoring the fact that Obama had wished citizens a Merry Christmas and had Christmas trees in the White House.

Christmas controversy equals more eyeballs

The media is another major player when it comes to the growing controversy around the words Merry Christmas. Dr Rae argues that tabloid media such as Fox News in the US, have made the debate much more of an issue than it is in everyday life.

An Australian example is when chain store Big W faced a backlash after one of their products, a tree, was branded a ‘holiday tree’ rather than the more traditional ‘Christmas tree’. The controversy went viral and was written up in major media outlets and widely shared, motivating some customers to post their disappointment on Big W’s social pages.

Interestingly, the chain hadn’t removed Christmas from all of its products highlighting that the interest in the topic of political-correctness around Christmas.

How the political correctness of Christmas affects you

Whether it’s due to our changing attitudes to religion or that Christmas has become a battle ground in the left versus right culture war, the debate treads a fine line between freedom of speech and inclusivity.

We do not want to live in a society where we can’t discuss and debate religion openly and honestly without feeling we are going to offend someone. ‘Australians should also be free to participate in religious events or not participate according to their beliefs. But I think we have this balance right in Australia,’ Dr Rae says

What happens when a Priest wants to ban the word Christmas?

In November of 2017, an Irish Priest called for the Christians to stop using the word Christmas as it had been co-opted by ‘Santa and reindeer’. ‘We’ve lost Christmas, just like we lost Easter, and should abandon the word completely,’ Father Desmond O’Donnell said.

Dr Rae says these comments show the commercial dominance of Christmas has taken over the secular celebration of goodwill and family time and the religious celebration of the birth of Jesus.

‘Both [have] become usurped by the imperative of businesses to make money,’ she says.

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Dr Maria Rae
Dr Maria Rae

Lecturer on Politics and Policy, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University.

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