The racist things I hear people say around Christmas
Megan DePutter: “It’s that time of the year again – a time for peace, joy, charity and good will, right? At the same time, it seems as though Christmas brings a lot of ethnocentric and xenophobic attitudes up to the surface. “
Every year around this time, we hear the same debates about whether or not the celebration of Christmas should take place in public spaces. In Guelph, this debate emerged when Stone Road Mall decided to remove the Nativity scene from the mall. Due to public uproar, the mall decided to put the Nativity scene back, and then invited patrons to celebrate with a reception.
I will get back to that particular decision in a minute, but let me say that, while I have my own opinions on the matter, these topics can be had in a fair and reasonable manner. The problem is that they tend to bring out far harsher sentiments and deep- seated oppressive beliefs.
One of the worst things I hear every year as people engage in this discussion is, “If I went to their country, I wouldn’t expect them to accommodate my religion.” This comment speaks volumes. How does this country belong to Christians any more than it belongs to any other citizen, regardless of religion? How does being Christian make someone more Canadian? These types of arguments, besides being oppressive, are also ignorant of Canada’s history - of colonization, of diverse immigration, and how the presence of racism has also shaped the demographic make-up of Canada today.
Canada is a secular country with a rich tapestry of ethnic origins and religions. Toronto is the most multi-cultural city in Canada. Canada has one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. And while the predominant religion in Canada is Christianity, Canada is not a Christian country. Non-Christians should feel as comfortable as any Christian when they access a service, business or public space.
Another common phrase I hear is, “I wouldn’t mind if someone says Happy Hanukkah to me, so why should they mind if I say Merry Christmas?” Unless you’ve heard Happy Hanukkah 10,000 times in your life, unless your television starts blasting Hanukkah commercials the day after Halloween, unless your radio plays Hanukkah music and your office, mall, park, grocery store, and doctor’s office are filled with Hanukkah decorations, and unless Christmas passes without a statutory holiday or mention outside your own religious community’s traditions, it’s not quite the same thing. And while I don’t think that saying “Merry Christmas” is the worst offence someone could commit, what hurts most in this discussion is not that people do it, it’s the lack of interest in change; it’s the lack of empathy or understanding of what it’s like for people who don’t celebrate Christmas; it’s the lack of a desire to be more inclusive and respectful.
Back to the issue of the Nativity Scene in Stone Road Mall. You know, removing explicit images or mentions of the baby Jesus does not make Christmas an inclusive event. Let’s call it what it is – Christmas is a religious holiday. The “holiday tree” in Queens Park is a still a damn Christmas tree, since to my knowledge, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists don’t stick great big trees in the homes and cover them with lights and decorations in preparation of the 25th of December.
I want to be sensitive to the fact that celebrating Christmas is a source of happiness and comfort for many people. And sharing other people’s religious traditions is not inherently offensive – it can be a source of great joy and discovery. Lighting a Christmas tree in City Hall can be a really fun event for many people – something I may enjoy myself. But surely celebrating Christmas and being inclusive is not an either-or situation.
It’s the self-centeredness – the unwillingness to see another person’s perspective is what I find really hurtful. If you are white, Christian and straight, it is worthwhile to consider what your experience might be if you were not all of these things. If you are gay, then you no doubt know what it feels like to grow up in a society that excludes you through the assumption of straightness and by constantly letting you know that being straight is normal, and superior. In the field of HIV & AIDS, we make an effort to break down heterosexism. I believe we need to do the same with ethnocentrism.