Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give festival its name for fear of causing offence

Stoke-on-Trent has become the latest city council to shy away from tradition. But they are missing the point, and we all need to grow up

Have yourself a merry little Winterfest. That's what they're calling the season in Stoke-on-Trent, the latest city council to go utterly bonkers and rebrand Christmas.

Forget Santa and his reindeer, let alone the little baby Jesus – the switching on of Stoke's lights featured a giant Jack Frost freezing the streets with a firebird chasing him down. Cue outrage.

"The politically correct brigade on the council think it's fair game to discriminate against Christians by calling Christmas 'Winterfest'," said Edward Cook, one of many residents who complained to the Stoke Sentinel. "I assume it is so that Muslims are not offended."

There is still a tree by the town hall, but the decision to bundle traditional celebrations with an expensive, spiritually neutral arts event called Winterfest has been taken by some as a sign that the councillors of multi-faith Stoke are embarrassed by a festival with Christ in the name.

They should have known there would be a hostile reaction, having tried this a decade ago.

"People are disgusted that we are giving the impression that this Winterfest is part of a dumbing down of Christmas," said the Conservative leader Roger Ibbs back then. "Instead of helping ease tension in the city, Winterfest is creating a big problem."

Now they're at it again, but Stoke is not alone. There are more examples than ever this year of councils, organisations and institutions avoiding Christmas for fear of upsetting unbelievers.

A survey of festive cards sent out by local authorities across Britain found only one out of 182 that mentioned the birth of Christ. That was from Banbridge in Northern Ireland. Nearly half of the cards ignored Christmas, preferring phrases such as Season's Greetings or Happy Holidays. Some had pictures of the council offices on the front; one showed a bus shelter.

Meanwhile, a straw poll of 2,000 users of the Netmums website found evidence of schools pushing aside traditional elements in their nativity plays to make room for characters such as spacemen, footballers and Elvis Presley. Only a third of schools go for the full traditional Nativity, according to the survey. Some prefer "winter celebrations", or replace carols with pop songs.

Who are they frightened of offending? Most atheists I know seem perfectly willing to tolerate what they see as a fairy story, as long as their child gets to play Mary or Joseph (or the Angel Gabriel – that's the real glamour part).

The Muslim Council of Great Britain has made it clear where it thinks the followers of Islam stand, by adapting a famous, fashionable wartime poster to say: "Keep Calm, It's Christmas". This was released with the words: "Who wants to ban Christmas? Not Muslims. None of us will be offended if you go ahead and enjoy the Christmas cheer."

Jesus is an important prophet to Muslims. "So whether you are celebrating Christmas or not, may these holidays bring joy and happiness to you and your loved ones. Keep calm and carry on."

Nevertheless, the angst is widespread. "I feel guilty," says Sue, a nurse at a clinic in the west Midlands where the staff have just decided to have a small Christmas tree on the reception desk, and nothing more.

"The official policy is that we have to be sensitive to other people's feelings in this department," says Sue, who agrees with that absolutely. She loves working alongside colleagues and serving patients of other faiths. However, as a Christian she also says: "I do have soul searching. In the effort to be sensitive to others I am undermining my own faith a little bit. How far do we have to go to please other faiths? Do we have to abandon what we believe?"

That is a question being asked in many hospitals, schools and other workplaces where private faith meets public service. Some people end up in court, but others find surprising answers.

Alison Bateman is acting head of St Andrew's Church of England Primary School in Keighley, West Yorkshire, where 98 per cent of pupils are Pakistani Muslim. She was astonished by what she found on taking up the job last year.

"I was gobsmacked when I saw no‑holds-barred Nativity plays taking place. I was bracing myself, thinking, 'Oh my goodness, what is the response of the parents going to be?' Our church vicar got up at the end of each one and did a prayer and everyone went off very happy. I was like, 'Wow!'"

The children learn about the Nativity as part of their RE lessons, she says. "These are off-the-shelf Nativity plays with no adaptations. The parents seem to accept it. There hasn't been an issue."

One reason may be that the parents feel secure about how the school handles faith. "We serve our community, which in this case is Pakistani Muslim," she says. "We are obliged to do worship every day with a vaguely Christian theme, but we are very careful about what we get the children to say, do or sing. As part of the curriculum we have to give them knowledge of the world and draw comparisons between their own beliefs and those of others."

Holding a traditional Nativity is a help to this rather than a hindrance. But not every head would have the confidence, even if they wanted to. Britain is in a state of transition. Our spirituality and ethnicity have changed and everyone is having to adjust, which can be painful.

"As a society we are in an adolescent phase," says Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University. "We are like gawky, embarrassed teenagers who don't know what their identity is. We are leaving behind our exclusively Protestant state religion, with its baggage that we don't want any more, like imperialism. But we haven't grown up enough to be confident about keeping what was good about that Christian heritage alongside other traditions. So we do really stupid things like this," she says, referring to Winterfest.

"We need to grow up and be more robust, allow religious and secular people alike to have free expression, argue with one another and contest things in an adult way."

The latest, greatest example of how not to do this comes from across the Atlantic, but it is already attracting support here. Saving Christmas is a new movie starring Kirk Cameron, who was in Growing Pains, apparently. No, me neither. These days he is an evangelist whose supporters have helped to get the movie into 400 America cinemas, and there are plans to bring it to Britain. It's awful, according to users of the Internet Movie Database website – the worst movie of all time, although it's not clear how many of those who voted have actually seen it.

The trailer suggests they might have a point. Cameron confronts his brother-in-law, who has stropped out of a lavish family Christmas saying it's a sham, a festival of commercialism. Jesus wasn't born in December, says the brother-in-law; the Christians just shackled their festival to the winter solstice. It's full of pagan symbols and stuff that isn't in the Bible anyway.

Cameron gives him a lovely big patronising smile and objects. "Everything you see inside there? It's all about Christmas," he says. "It's all about Jesus." Yes, he does seem to mean the huge house, the piles of presents, the lights blazing, the table groaning with food. God only knows how it looks to the one in seven Americans who have been forced to use food banks.

"There are some people who want to put a big wet blanket on all of this fun," warns Cameron, before going on to say that it's all a reflection of God's love. He doesn't say – in the trailer at least – how he's going to face the Jesus who told the rich young man to give away all his wealth.

The thing is, the brother-in-law is absolutely right. Most sane Christians would admit that. The season does owe a huge amount to pagan, Roman and Anglo-Saxon festivals that celebrated light and life in the depths of winter with food, drink and presents.

Charles Dickens invented our modern Christmas by portraying shopping and feasting as ways to show love and bring people together. The advertising industry sells that idea relentlessly.

British churches are protesting against commercialism, gently, by releasing a minute-long advertisement that takes on Monty the John Lewis penguin. A modern couple moon over their newborn child, then morph into Mary and Joseph. The baby giggles. Blub.

It is very sweet, but the trouble with such attempts to "put the Christ back into Christmas" is that he is barely there. The babe lies in the midst of a story made up long after his death.

Even if you accept the birth as a fact, the story that gets told now differs wildly from the original.

The angels do not sing in the Bible; they speak. The donkey isn't there. The stable isn't a stable. The kings are not kings and it's the wrong time of year. As far as textual – let alone historical – accuracy goes, you might as well chuck in Elvis and a lobster.

None of that matters. Christmas endures because it is more inclusive than Winterfest could ever be. Everyone can play, believers and unbelievers alike.

"The church makes things worse by saying, 'Christmas is ours – you are all godless materialists'," says Professor Woodhead. "Actually, Christmas is a unifying festival. It brings people together without being too religious, and that's a great thing."

So the councillors of Stoke-on-Trent can stop being embarrassed and relax, along with everyone else. The church has a right to tell its story, but it doesn't own Christmas. We all do.