We wish you a 'PC' Christmas

Readers of certain newspapers would be forgiven for thinking that Christmas has been outlawed by the massed ranks of the politically correct left. Are they right? Maxine Frith finds out
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The Independent Online

If recent tabloid reports are to be believed, Christmas has been cancelled and the fattened goose has been replaced by a halal chicken this year.

Carols have been censored, tinsel outlawed and even our human right to dance on a table drunkenly waving a bottle of vodka at the office party before kissing Dave from accounts is being curtailed.

Never a paper to miss the chance of a "political correctness gone mad" headline, The Sun ran a front page earlier this week that screamed, "Kick 'Em in the Baubles!", aimed at the party poopers who have banned office Christmas decorations on the grounds of health and safety.

Some of the stories are as perennial as a Vicar of Dibley Christmas special - for the record, Luton does not call its annual light display Luminos and Birmingham does not have a religion-neutral "Winterval" festival.

But seasoned observers say that this year has seen a growing backlash against the plethora of rules and regulations imposed on the festive season.

John Midgley co-founded the Campaign Against Political Correctness two years ago and says that more than 9,000 people have since signed his petition against what he regards as a pervasive evil in modern life.

"We have talked to the Muslim Council of Britain and other religious groups and they have no problem with people celebrating Christmas," said Mr Midgley.

"It is white, middle-aged, middle-class men with a guilt complex sitting in their ivory towers who are causing all the problems. They are trying to airbrush our traditions out of this country but they are merely alienating the very people they claim they are trying to help."

So has Father Christmas been given the equivalent of an Asbo, or is it simply anti-political-correctness gone mad?

The office

Three out of four employers have banned Christmas decorations from the workplace because they fear they could offend people of other faiths, according to the law firm Peninsula. The survey of more than 2,000 bosses found that half had also outlawed baubles and tinsels because they thought it looked unprofessional.

The Royal Bank of Scotland has warned staff in its City offices not to put up decorations themselves, citing concerns that they could cause fire and injury and demanding that workers should book an engineer if they want to hang Christmas cards on string.

In an unlikely meeting of minds, the Tory MP Ann Widdecombe called the moves "idiotic" and the former home and foreign secretary Jack Straw demanded the country had a "big conversation" about tinsel.

The Government conciliation body Acas also issued guidance this week on office parties, suggesting that employers could put themselves at risk of an age discrimination claim if the music or entertainment is aimed too obviously at younger staff.

According to Acas, holding a Christmas raffle with alcohol as prizes could offend Muslims, who should not gamble or drink.

Bosses were also warned that a failure to ensure their underlings get home safely could be a breach of their duty of care.

Decorations

It is not just the offices that could remain festive-free this year; a growing number of local authorities have also cracked down on Christmas.

Scarborough has ditched a turning-on ceremony for its Christmas lights - at which no less a luminary than a Coronation Street star was expected to flick the switch - because of health and safety fears over the number of people who would attend.

Yeovil in Somerset will not have its traditional High Street decorations this year because the district council has insisted that qualified contractors carry out risk assessments, doubling the costs to more than £5,000 and putting the colourful trees beyond the reach of the traders who pay for them.

Harwich and Dovercourt in Essex have fallen foul of similar rules and local businessmen have accused the local council of a Scrooge-like refusal to help meet the costs.

Worse still, Wokingham District Council went to the effort to get an injunction against the millionaire Vic Moszczynski, who likes to illuminate his Sonning-on-Thames house - and most of the south of England - with an extravagant light display which took "Christmas bling" to new heights.

Bureau-prats, as they have been nicknamed in some quarters, claimed that the display was causing traffic problems and an increase in crime because so many people were flocking to the lights.

Meanwhile, Coventry City Council is employing crack teams of police officers armed with camcorders to film revellers in an effort to cut down on "disorder" during the season, with £80 fines for those who get a little too festive.

Church

Mr Moszczynski's outsized Winnie the Poohs and multi-coloured snowmen may have little to do with the birth of the son of God, but even the Church is no sanctuary against the march of the PC army, it seems.

Churchgoers - even those who count themselves as such because they stagger into Midnight Mass once a year after the pub closes - have reportedly been angered by the fact that Government Christmas cards wish recipients "Season's Greetings" rather than a more Christian message.

The failure of the Royal Mail to put Jesus or any other religious image on its seasonal stamps has also hit nerves - and headlines.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, yesterday accused "aggressive" secularists of "throwing out the crib at Christmas" by imposing bans on school nativity plays and mentions of Jesus.

But the brouhaha may actually be helping the Church of England to put bums on seats, with reports that traditional carol concerts are selling out following a big increase in ticket sales this year.

Food

It's enough to make the Christmas traditionalists choke before they have even happened upon a wishbone or the penny in their pudding - turkey is off the menu - or almost, anyway.

Oakwood Technology College in Rotherham has been forced to back down after announcing plans to replace the school's annual turkey lunch with halal chicken slaughtered according to Muslim beliefs.

One in five pupils at the college are Muslim and the canteen has already angered parents by only serving halal meat on normal school days, but the scrapping of the Christmas lunch was, it seems, a step too far and there were furious protests - now both halal chicken and "normal" turkey will be served.

Even eschewing meat does not guarantee you immunity from accusations of political incorrectness.

The television chef Rick Stein used part of his BBC2 programme this week to highlight the joys of fish from an organic salmon farm in Scotland.

But he said that every time he even mentions farmed salmon he receives a slew of abusive e-mails from people about the evils of such practices.

The upstanding ladies of the Embsay Women's Institute in Yorkshire have also come under the cloud of PC suspicion.

Organisers of the village Christmas party were told that a full risk assessment had to be carried out of the free mince pies that would be handed out by the local WI, along with posters warning about the dual threats of suet pastry and nuts that they might contain.

Trees

The great 2006 Christmas Tree scandal has everything that Mr Midgley and his anti-PC campaign could possibly want in order to rouse their ire - a ban on a sacred part of the festivities; a corresponding financial blow to "decent tax-payers" and even better - it's the EU that is to blame.

The price of a Christmas tree has risen by around 30 per cent this year because European agricultural reforms have decimated supplies of the popular non-shedding varieties from Norway.

Changes to the EU laws have discouraged Norwegian farmers from growing pine trees and Scottish growers have struggled to supply the market, leading to shortages and a price rises.

If that wasn't bad enough, the good denizens of Burnley, in Lancashire, have been denied the joy of their traditional tree in the market square because the anti-vandal box in which it sat was deemed to be too expensive.

There is still a tree - but in a less salubrious position near the local branch of McDonald's, while the town square merely boasts a crib since which residents have compared (unfavourably) to a shed.

Ethical campaigners are also leaving consumers with a feeling of "damned if they do..." with warnings that "real" trees may not be from sustainable farms while fake versions may be made from environmentally damaging plastics.

Schools

As if banning the little baby Jesus from the nation's stamps wasn't enough, our own children are being stopped from the traditional yuletide activities of eating chocolate until they're sick, demanding toys that have already sold out and singing carols out of tune and at the top of their voices for the next three weeks. A school carol concert in Dudley was scrapped because a mean-hearted resident objected to the application for an entertainment licence by the organisers.

Elsewhere, primary school pupils in Wallington, Surrey, have been told that instead of singing the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas song, they will be forced to perform a calypso version that changes the line "partridge in a pear tree" to "cornbird in a palm tree."Rocking Around the Christmas Tree has become Rocking Around the Shops in an effort to support the schools' "inclusion policy".

The Chancellor Gordon Brown has also joined the fray, castigating the Government's Sure Start playgroups that have replaced Christmas parties with "Winter celebrations".

Various Sure Start groups have said that they are having "general" parties because they are attended by children and parents of different faiths.

Schoolchildren in Berkshire went home in tears after a teacher told them in class that Father Christmas did not exist.

Parents of pupils at the Calcot Junior School complained that Christmas had been "ruined" for their children after the teacher dispelled such tenets of belief as the existence of Rudolph the Reindeer and Santa Claus to the nine-year-olds during a discussion on how other religions celebrate festivals.

All this doom and gloom may indicate an unduly gloomy seasonal outlook.

But, as with the best Christmas movies, there is a happy ending; the BBC put its breakfast show baubles up this week, London has received its annual present of a Christmas tree from Norway and The Vicar of Dibley has once again evaded the PC secularists to grace our screens with a special episode on 25 December.

As Brummies might say, Happy Winterval.

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