Taking the Christ out of Christmas?

The missing Nativity scene from Nicosia’s Eleftheria Square aroused my suspicions that the War on Christmas might finally have reached our gloriously un-politically correct utopian backwater.

I began to survey the decorations and shop windows around town looking for signs that Christmas was being neutralised. Everything seemed normal, and the huge ‘Merry Christmas’ lights across the square were intact, but I was curious about the manger.

Nicos Karanikis from the Nicosia Municipality, however, assured us that the nativity scene still existed, but had been moved to the moat due to lack of space in the square. He was adamant the move had nothing to do with political correctness.

“We don’t suffer from that sickness yet,” he said.

Next it was time to check out the Christmas cards that were coming in, and to see what organisations and companies had decided to take Christ out of Christmas this year.

The card from the EU delegation was the least Christmassy. Depicting the Treaty of Rome anniversary message “Together since 1957”, the card simply said “Season’s Greetings” in all of the EU languages. “We must not imply anything religious on cards,” said a spokesman at the delegation. “There is a certain policy not to offend or show any religious leanings.”

A similar message came from the UN, understandable given its mandate. “The UN is non-denominational when it comes to greetings, which is related to the partiality of the UN,” said spokesman Brian Kelly.

Asked if there was any policy advice to local missions given that staff are usually of mixed nationalities and faiths, Kelly said he had not seen any nativity scenes in UNFICYP offices, but he had seen lots of Christmas trees. “A lot of Turkish Cypriots have a UK background so Christmas for them is part of the calendar,” he said.

The US Embassy said it didn’t have a secular policy as such, but had nevertheless always sent out cards saying “Happy New Year”. Staff are allowed to have decorations in their offices, a spokesman said.

The British bases, which also have mixed staff, say they are a little behind the UK when it comes to political correctness. “We still say Christmas greetings. We don’t try to be PC, but we respect the multicultural society in which we live,” said spokesman Dennis Barnes. He said the Turkish Cypriots who work in Dhekelia don’t have any problems and make no demands. “It’s still little England here where Christmas is still Christmas,” Barnes added.

Similarly, the British High Commission was not playing the PC card… literally, as a card depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus arrived. “There is no policy,” said spokesman Nigel Boud. “Our Foreign Office cards are overtly Christian and we don’t have any problems. We have non-Christian staff at the High Commission and their religious festivals are marked and celebrated and respected. I think the whole thing is exaggerated and the incidents are isolated incidents. Christmas is a Christian festival. It should be possible to celebrate it without anyone getting offended.”

The Israeli Embassy agreed. A spokesman said the embassy had held a small ceremony earlier in the week to celebrate Hanukkah. “Jewish people do not take exception to Christmas, although we are careful with the greeting cards we send since we don’t have Christmas,” said the spokesman. “The cards focus on happy new year or season’s greetings but we are not ultra sensitive. Lots of people send us Christmas cards and we are not offended. You have to be practical as well. Some people don’t know about Hanukkah. Sometimes the EU or US or the UK go too far with political correctness at this time of the year. They’ve taken the spirit out of Christmas.”

But one multinational company on the island said staff were told to be careful when choosing what cards to send locally. One option they were offered by the company “was not remotely related to Christmas” an employee said.

Sociologist Antonis Rafits said when people start being offended “we get into the realm of religious prejudice, which is not a good idea”. “Minority groups have the right not to celebrate but they should not be allowed to go against those who believe in Christmas,” he added.

Raftis said he did not agree with any policy that prevented a person of one faith from displaying their religious symbols in order to appease another. “But I don’t think this is too much of an issue in Cyprus,” he said.

The Reverend Steve Collis from St Paul’s Anglican Church said that in some instances Christians were trying hard to be reasonable when those from other faiths became offended. “A lot of people are looking to appease Islamic nations. I feel personally it’s gone too far because I have had Muslim friends sending me Christmas cards. They think we are being unwise. I feel very strongly we should show concern for others but there are some others that are trying to take it all away and neutralise Christmas,” he said.

The Reverend Collis said that instead of trying to take Christ out of Christmas, other faiths should be invited to join in. “What is going on is more of a political concern. Instead of taking Christ out of Christmas they should take politics out of Christmas,” he said.