Who needs a euphemism for Christmas?

In their desire to be inoffensive, Americans have set the pace for meaningless holidays
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I have just returned from the United States, where Christmas is in full spate. Except that it isn't Christmas. It's "The Holiday Season". Carols are crooned from every shop entrance and blare from Tannoys on street corners. But they aren't quite Christmas carols. They are redolent of tinkling sleigh bells and jingling cheer, but the message is oddly coy when it comes to religious specifics. Stampedes of red-nosed reindeer convey their red-cheeked Santas through thickets of holly, spangled with giant snowflakes, escorted by squadrons of robins. But you'll find precious few mentions of Jesus or Mary or even shepherds or Wise Men from the East, and certainly no reference to the intricate theology of the Incarnation. When you telephone hotel reception, before the inevitable (and unfailingly maddening) "How may I help you?" you get a seasonal greeting as a bonus. Happy Holidays! Not Happy Christmas or Merry Yuletide but Happy Holidays or, in its full version, "Happy Holiday Season".

The first few times I experienced this mealy-mouthed evasion, I queried it. Putting on my most innocently testy John Cleese voice (I just love your English dialect) I inquired exactly what was this "holiday"? Could it be Labor Day? Veterans' Day? St Patrick's Day (notoriously a tradition as American as apple pie, celebrated with green beer garnished with plastic leprechauns)? Was it the birthday of George Washington, or perhaps another from the pantheon of birthdays that stud the national calendar? No? Oh, I see, of course, how silly of me, you must mean Happy Christmas. But of course we mustn't call it that, must we, because that would cause offence and "hurt" to the Jews (Muslims, Hindus, Hare Krishnas, etc).

The constitutional separation of church and state has not stopped America becoming the most religiose country in the (otherwise) civilised world, and in a number of court cases litigious representatives of non-Christian religions have sued local governments for erecting cribs or nativity tableaux in public places. Presumably, working on the alternative principle of "If you can't beat them, join them", other Jewish groups on both sides of the Atlantic have pressed into service the minor festival of Chanukah, which happens to fall conveniently at the right end of the year (Chanukah or Hanukkah actually commemorates the purification and rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus around 165BC, after its pollution by the Syrians). As long ago as 1902 the Daily Chronicle noted that "The feast of `Hanucha', or dedication, is celebrated by the Jews this year simultaneously with Christmas," and in 1958 a writer in the Times Literary Supplement suggested that "A common term between Christmas and Hanukkah has to be found." Evidently "Holiday Season" is a (feeble) bid in that direction.

British commentators now suggest that nativity plays are outdated in a society with so many religions. On the other hand, a few Christmases ago, the Independent carried a charmingly ecumenical picture in which the roles of the Three Wise Men were played by "a Sikh", "a Moslem" and "a Christian", all aged four. Charming the children themselves genuinely were. What I find less charming - indeed it is little short of an outrage, if you think about it - is the implication in the caption that a four- year-old child is in any position to have developed theological opinions. Do we speak of a four-year-old monetarist Euro-sceptic, a four-year-old dialectical materialist or a four-year-old neo-Kantian? Such ideas are laughable, yet we accept "Muslim child" or "Christian child" without blinking.

If a child is the child of an atheist, does that make her an atheist child? Of course not; the very idea groans with sinister implications of indoctrination. For this reason, most educated atheists (and, by the way, have you ever met an uneducated atheist?) bend over backwards to let their children join in the religious life of their schools. Pupils who are withdrawn from religious classes or services are not withdrawn by atheist parents. They are withdrawn by parents belonging to rival religions, presumably the same types who sue local councils for celebrating Christmas (and when did an atheist ever do that?).

As for children who are withdrawn by their parents from biology classes where evolution is taught, they are surely victims of an educational form of parental child abuse and are entitled to protection by the state. But will anybody stand up and say so? They will not, because the kind of people who might think it are nice, liberal intellectuals, and nice, liberal intellectuals are scared to jelly of being caught not "respecting" religious conviction. Any other sort of conviction you can examine with a critical eye, and you can use your intellect to take it apart if it is found wanting. But if a conviction turns out to be a religious conviction - Whoa, back off! Religious conviction doesn't have to defend itself. It doesn't have to justify itself. You just have to respect it, period.

Even making fun of its antics at Christmas time is in the grossest bad taste.