The UK is not only winning this debate, but leading the US in the direction both countries are heading.
This is only the second time in 10 years that we are not going home for the holidays. I can envision Washington and New York decked out with all the lights and window displays and wreaths. Ice skating in Central Park, the massive tree at 50 Rock, the horse carriage rides, the snow, the smell of chestnuts roasting in the street vendors trolleys. Near the Washington Cathedral, a little round building that looks perfect for a Hobbit called The Herb Cottage, was a favourite stop for my Mom with my sister and I in tow to get ornaments and wreaths and cards. The whole cottage burst with scents of cinnamon and nutmeg spice and a cozy warmth wrapped you up like a blanket.
Very similar to Oxford Street and Regent Street here in London. It’s a festival of lights, with caroling and music and Christmas markets and an enormous “kissing” tree in Covent Garden. Kew Gardens has their Christmas lights walk, a merry-go-round and Santa’s Grotto (there are loads around the city) that transports you to his workshop at the North Pole. It’s a lovely time of year, despite the grey and dark short days.
The similarities don’t end there: although the majority of both populations is Christian (75% polled in 2015 the US, and 64% in 2010 in the UK), they base their foundations on freedom of religion. And as we know, the US and the UK have been accepting immigrants from all over for centuries now (lest we forget the US is founded on immigrants fleeing religious persecution). Therefore it’s inevitable that we have become a more diverse society — ethnically, culturally AND religiously.
So naturally, somewhere along the way in both countries, there evolved an understanding that not everyone celebrates Christmas. However, it’s from this starting point that we diverge dramatically.
War on Christmas
In the US for years now there have been issues with saying “Merry Christmas”. The religious right (and Bill O’Reilly and Trump) have called it a “War on Christmas”. Which is baloney. As far as I know, no one is trying to ban Christmas – apart from the Burger Meister Meister Burger (you have to have grown up in the US to understand that) . What did start happening is we realised that people who don’t celebrate Christmas sometimes took offence to the greeting. They would have preferred “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa”, so to make things easier, people just started saying “Happy Holidays”.
A growing share of Americans, 52%, say it does not matter to them how they are greeted during the holiday season
This is in line with the way the US culture is on many levels — to be ultra, overly PC about things. Don’t want to hurt or offend! Some people don’t believe in God? Then we should stop saying the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the flag of America in schools (something I grew up with in the 70s). Don’t celebrate Christmas? Then you cannot have a Nativity plays in schools (also something I grew up with). The stores, ever worried about the all-American dollar, started putting up “Holiday Trees” instead of Christmas trees. Over time, some religious folks started a rallying cry, claiming they felt they were being stripped of what they saw as foundations of US culture. But in reality, the diverse culture with its diverse religions was just upholding and honouring the very laws the country was built on: Separation of Church and State.
Separation of Church and State vs. Christian-faith Based UK
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson addressed the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in a letter saying “I contemplate…that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an
Whereas the US put into place clearly defined statutes that separate church and state, the UK is based upon the Christian faith.
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” He is referring to the First Amendment of the Constitution (and Article Six) but he was using the language of Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in America, who said in 1644 “A hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world”.
Thus, the very separate path our two countries have taken over the past 200+ years is quite basic: whereas the US put into place clearly defined statutes that separate church and state, the UK is based upon the Christian faith. The Crown is a one-man corporation run by God, so to speak. As the brilliant CGP Grey says, “According to British tradition, all power is vested in God and the Monarch is crowned in a Christian ceremony.” The Head of State is the Queen (the Monarch) and the official religion of Great Britain is Anglicanism.
With this in mind, you would think that the UK would be more religious than the US, right? Not at all, just the opposite. The latest poll and survey in 2017 shows that more than half the UK population say they have no religion at all. And this tracks with the 2015 poll that says the UK is among the least religious countries in the world.
Understanding the Brits
In the UK, religion is just not discussed. It is a very private matter.
After seven years here, I could not tell you what the religion is of the hundreds of people I know well and have befriended. Religion is not discussed, it is not worn on your sleeve (likewise with politics too). Back in the States, I know the religions of all of my friends — they wear it with pride. Here, like many things, it is personal. And often forgotten. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of my friends don’t practice any faith or religion. But nearly everyone I know do enjoy the Christmas traditions: the family dinner with roast turkey, the tree, Father Christmas and stockings, etc. Very little is mentioned about the baby Jesus or the three wise men, but goodness me, try to come between a Brit and their Christmas Panto or Boxing Day! They do so love their traditions, regardless of the meaning or origin.
And that’s the key, there is little or no religious attachment to Christmas for the modern-day Brit. It’s a month of festive feeling, of office parties and heavy drinking. Everyone here commonly says “Happy holidays” in their heads, but it just comes out as “Happy Christmas”. They are not thinking about going to church, but more likely about days off work, time with family. You might possibly say that Christmas for the Brits is like Thanksgiving to us. It’s really that simple.
And they’d be absolutely mortified if they thought they were offending anyone! They’re just bumbling through, wouldn’t think to ask one’s religious beliefs, so they fall back on their go-to. I suspect the giant Menorah in Trafalgar Square (which was centre-stage in a beautiful Hanukkah celebration last night with Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan) is a reaction to someone in the US telling them they might be offending people.
I’m not trying to be flip, but this is a country with less than 10% of its population going to church. To them, it’s not about faith or religion. Offices still have “Christmas parties” and stores have “Christmas sales” — it’s just an excuse for a drink and a bargain. The underlying meaning is whatever you, personally, put on it. I have friends who have said “Happy Hanukkah” to me and Muslim family members who put up Christmas trees. We all can and should celebrate whatever belief we subscribe to, the more the merrier. You are pagan and celebrating the Winter Solstice? Go for it! Atheist and expecting “Happy holidays”? You got it. A Kwanzaa feast? Most excellent. Those winter naked people who jump in freezing cold water? Well, if that’s your thing…The important takeaway is to be inclusive.
When I first arrived here, after years of the Political Correctness in the US, I was shocked with all the overt Christianity: our daughter’s primary school doing a Nativity play and an Easter bonnet parade. It made me very uncomfortable. But now that I get the lack of religious meaning attached, I find it’s quite nice to retain some fun traditions that I remember growing up. There’s an added bonus as well in today’s inclusive world: in both primary and secondary schools children here have religion classes where they learn about Hinduism and Islam and Judaism – even Zoroastrianism.
And I think the US is following suit. A Pew study from 2017, reports:
“As the long-simmering debates continue over how American society should commemorate the Christmas holiday,..a survey finds that most U.S. adults believe the religious aspects of Christmas are emphasised less now than in the past – even as relatively few Americans are bothered by the trend. In addition, a declining majority says religious displays such as nativity scenes should be allowed on government property. And compared with five years ago, a growing share of Americans (52%) say it does not matter to them how they are greeted in stores and businesses during the holiday season – whether with “merry Christmas” or a less-religious greeting like “happy holidays”.
So let me end by saying Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Kwanzaa! Whatever you celebrate, may peace and joy be with you this holiday season.