I wrote about this to the Mayor of Durham, who is also the Chair of the County Council. I received a courteous, lengthy reply from her. As I suspected, it comes down to not wanting to offend people of other faith traditions, or those with no faith, by being too explicit about the Christian nature of Christmas. In an inclusive multi-faith society where no single religious tradition is to be privileged over any other, we must be careful.
No-one disagrees with the project of building inclusive communities in a modern democracy. But this isn’t really the point. The fact is that England is a Christian country, not just because of its history but because Christianity is (still) by law established with the Sovereign as Defender of the Faith. I guess that it’s in this spirit that our political leaders, whatever their personal convictions, are sending seasonal cards bearing the greeting ‘happy’ or ‘merry’ Christmas. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, whatever their own faith, are presumably sending cards to a great many people who are not themselves practising Christians. (I haven’t been able to ascertain what message David Cameron’s card opts for.)
But that claim by itself doesn’t move me unduly. I am much more persuaded by the attitudes people of other faith communities actually take towards Christmas. There is clear evidence that they very much want us to own our faith seriously and not be coy or ashamed about it. I was intrigued to hear of some devout overseas Muslims who had chosen to come to Durham University precisely because of its Christian origins and because Durham City wears its historic Christian character on its sleeve.
A Guardian article from 2011 entitled ‘Christmas is not just for Christians’, focuses on a multi-faith group called the Phoenix Inter-Community Initiative. This aims to explore a ‘new centre ground’ against the polarising forces of extremism and radicalisation in politics and religion. That year they ran a campaign to ‘demonstrate support and respect for Christmas among different faiths’. They tell of Muslim students taking part in nativity plays and how the seasonal symbols and archetypes of Christmas (e.g. darkness and light) are common to many different faiths. They are keen to get non-Christians joining Christians in volunteering over the Christmas period and supporting Christian charities. They quote a Hindu who says: ‘I don’t know anyone who actually wants to ban Christmas and most Hindus and Muslims that I know actually celebrate it’.
Dialogue between faiths is conducted on a much more sophisticated intellectual basis than many people realise. Participants in such conversations know that honest, rigorous debate and practical collaboration are entirely compatible with religious convictions that are deeply held on every side. Sharing in one another’s festivals can be an important part of learning together, as can mutual hospitality offered generously, as it very often is, by mosques, temples, synagogues and churches alike.
So, County Council, please give us back our Happy Christmas sign next year. If you want to wish people Happy Eid or Happy Passover or Happy Diwali as well, why not? It's what they do in Leicester, one of the most diverse cities in the UK. Perhaps it's our lack of real experience in the North East of living in settings of true ethnic & religious diversity that seduces us into unintelligently timid approaches to faith. So please take religion seriously. It will be warmly welcomed not just by the churches but by people of many different faiths who are citizens of Durham and want to share with Christians their celebration of this most wonderful time of year.