By Swapan Dasgupta
One of the more astonishing items of "news" I read in recent days was in the online edition of the Daily Telegraph, one of the most culturally authentic newspapers from England. It seems that social psychologists in Canada's Simon Fraser University found that "non-Christians feel less self-assurance and fewer positive feelings if a Christmas tree was in their room." In other words, non-Christian minorities in the West felt "excluded" by the ubiquitous Christmas decorations and paraphernalia this time of the year. The Canadian academics interviewed 77 Christians and 57 non-Christians (which included atheists, Buddhists and Sikhs) to conclude that Christmas is bad for national integration of this multi-ethnic (but overwhelmingly Christian) North American country. Their policy prescription was stark: tone down your Christmas celebrations for the sake of an inclusive society.
The inclination to treat this research as another piece of secular, social engineering must be resisted. For the past few years, my Inbox has been filling up with email greetings, mainly from the English-speaking world in the West, wishing me "Happy holidays". Initially, the substitution of "Happy holidays" for "Merry Christmas" seemed quirky. However, after I received one such e-card from an Oxford academic who spends her time in a town that resonates with ecclesiastical history, I am driven to the inescapable conclusion that the quirkiness has become a fad.
Maybe I am being unduly harsh. It is entirely possible that the profound conclusion of the academics from Simon Fraser University has been imbibed by the socially-concerned, liberal middle classes of Western Christendom. They may well have concluded that wishing a self-confessed pagan like me "Merry Christmas" is tantamount to social condescension and amounts to a social slight. After all, the sight of a Christmas tree is supposed to make a non-Christian like me less self-assured and, perhaps, vulnerable to perpetuating an iniquitous world order.
It is the perpetuation of such politically-correct nonsense that makes me want to believe dire Chinese prognosis of the steady decline of the West. Imagine the reaction of an ordinary, non-news channel watching family in India if it is told that some unemployable professors have shown, after surveying 134 individuals, that the bright lights and loud crackers of Diwali intimidated "non-Hindus" and, therefore, undermine the basis of Indian secularism? Imagine, if the country is told that public celebrations of Hindu festivals should be firmly discouraged for the sake of creating an inclusive society?
I am glad to say that the universal reaction of all Indians, cutting across religions, to such preposterous suggestions would be complete bewilderment. India, very reassuringly, remains very firmly a society that celebrates faith quite boisterously. If it Christmas, Santa Claus is celebrated; Eid becomes the time for grand Iftar parties; and Diwali is shorthand for every type of indulgence. In India, there is no wall separating faith and culture: both merge seamlessly into each other.
It was exactly the same with Christmas in the West. From the nativity plays for the tiny-tots in schools to office parties where binge drinking and social indiscretions combined noisily, Christmas was to the West exactly Diwali is to us. There were dollops of faith, piety, commercialism and over-indulgence. And the culmination was always a family get-together. Did it really matter that one community pegged their happiness on the birth of Christ and the stories associated with that event, while another chose the anniversary of Ram's return to Ayodhya after a prolonged exile to let their hair down?
Indians appreciate the spirit of goodwill associated with Christmas and the New Year because it corresponds with their own experience of festivals. An individual from a so-called "minority" community may be envious of the gluttony that is associated with Christmas in the West, but to suggest that he/she feels less sure about being a non-Christian in the West as a result is absolute poppycock.
If indeed they do, they should consider emigrating to some secular fundamentalist country where religion and religious festivals have no public presence. Indeed, emigration has been my suggestion to many of the ethnic minorities who complain incessantly of how bad life has been treating them in the West. Being a cultural minority does not involve giving up your distinctiveness. However, it does not absolve the minority of appreciating and even participating in the public festivals of the dominant community. In short, if any non-Christian is offended or feel diminished by "Merry Christmas" he should be sent for re-education to some grim seminary that lacks central heating. .
The problem, as I see it, is the growing lack of self-esteem of the "secular" West, a problem that Pope Benedict XVI has been constantly highlighting. It is they who are uncomfortable with tradition, faith and the role of the West in the world. Under the cover of multi-culturalism or some other impressive sounding doctrine, they have basically abjured their own inheritance. This small but influential minority has a right to retreat from national customs but to seek to justify their deracination by gratuitous concern for the sentiments of non-Christians is both wrong and morally offensive.
The notion of a Jealous God is not universal. It may even be an aberration.
Belated Merry Christmas!