Thursday, December 14, 2006

Humbug (4)

I'm really, really sorry about this, but I think I may have caught the Daily Mail telling the truth. I've done an extensive survey of all the specialist greeting card shops in Bristol and I can confirm that it is very difficult to find a religious Christmas card in any of them.

Don't you find the whole concept of 'greetings card shops' a bit strange? In a healthy society, I think that greetings cards would be a sideline in a stationers or maybe an art-supplies shop. But every shopping mall in the country can support not just one, but two or three shops which sell nothing but cards. Well, cards and wrapping paper. Cards, wrapping paper and expensive Eeyore cuddly toys intended for adults. Which is quite strange in itself: if I want to send my love an amusing cuddly toy of Kanga or Piglet, then I'm also stuffed. Eeyore is the only Winnie the Pooh character you can get. I think it was Anthony Thwait who pointed out that A.A Milne has largely replaced the Bible and Homer as a source of easily identifiable character-types. If you say 'He had a Tigger personality' or 'I was having an Eeyore day' everyone knows what you mean. So what is the point of selling idols of the 'Sad' archetype in which he is represented as happy? All twelve pictures in this years 'Eeyore' calendar (you can get an Eeyore calendar, a Piglet calendar, and a Tigger calendar) show Eeyore with a smiley face.

The substance of the Daily Mail piece is quite true: if you want a picture of Littlebay Beejeezuz Clintons can't help you. But I would hesitate to conclude that Clintons must therefore be part of an anti-Christian conspiracy. They have a nice line in Christening cards, with pictures of babies, bells, churches and even crosses. The Daily Mail would presumably regard 'Christening' as a 'Christian' ceremony. The rest of us would note that, like Christmas, the Rite of Baptism is an important Christian festival, but that, like Christmas, it is often celebrated for purely secular reasons, and that, like Christmas, most of the customs associated with it -- silk shawls, silver teddy bears, depositing money in Premium Bond accounts -- have no possible 'religious' significance. We might also note that you can get First Communion and Confirmation cards of both the secular and the religious variety. A secular confirmation card depicts a stereotypically teenaged child, possibly with a church in the background, but with the clear message 'Congratulations on turning 13.' Whether or not anyone buys them, I don't know, but you can see how the marketing department came up with the idea. 'We sell a lot of Bar Mitzvah cards and its not only religious Jews who send them. So maybe be can make it the done thing for not-especially-religious Christians to send congratulations-you've-become-a-teenager cards when their friends kids are confirmed?' We might also note that the Sacrament of Marriage can be celebrated with cards which depict churches and (especially) church bells, and that Clintons have made no attempt to replace the English religious Mothering Sunday (fourth Sunday in Lent) with the secular American Mother's day (second Sunday in May)

My special friend Oliver Burkeman points out that the Mail piece is based on very questionable statistics. He notes that they claim to have looked at 5500 cards and found only 67 with images of the nativity. That could presumably mean that 96% have images of snowmen, carol singers, churches, bells and other 'traditional' images on them. Conflating 'not explicitly holy' with 'not traditional' and saying 'You can't get 'traditional' cards, therefore, Christmas is being stamped out' is another bit of sleight of hand.

What Burkeman doesn't say is that even if the Mail's statistics are valid, the piece itself is based on a lie.

Christmas cards are losing their religious message

Traditional pictures...are dying out

Scenes of the nativity has been replaced

There were fears that religious images were being scrubbed from the cards...

Hundreds of cards avoided any image linked to Christmas at all

Card manufacturers who ditched Christmas symbols...

...do-gooders sitting in offices who decide that Christmas is offensive to other religions

...so they must scrub all Christian images.

Oh: and while we are at it:

The Royal Mail has faced criticism for axing the Bible story from its festive stamps and....

Can you guess what's coming?

....councils have been ridiculed for re-naming Christmas 'Winterval'.

I was particularly pleased with the use of the plural. We now know that it's a good idea for employers to supply food at office Christmas parties to prevent staff getting too drunk. I expect that the very religious party at the offices of the Daily Mail will supply lots and lots of pork pies.

The Daily Mail aren't simply reporting a piece of data: it's hard to find a card with a picture of Our Lady on it. They are telling us that a process is happening whereby religious imagery at Christmas is declining, on the decrease, dying out -- that where there were images of Littlebay Bejeezus there are now Snowmen and Santas. But that's more than we know. How many secular cards were there in 2005, before the arrival of the Muslim hoard? In 1980 when we were ruled by the Blessed Virgin Margaret? In 1950 or 1850? Without figures from previous years, we have no basis to say that traditional pictures are 'dying out'. It is entirely possible that there were always more Father Christmases than there were Angel Gabriels.

The Mail also wants us to think that the secularization of Christmas is part of a conscious, deliberate (and fairly recent) process. But even assuming that the researchers really did find fewer B.V.Ms and more Christmas Puddings this years than they did last year, you can't infer that anyone is consciously replacing, avoiding, scrubbing, ditching, banning or outlawing anything at all. It's possible that there are so many Christians that, by the time the Mail's researcher got to the shop all the religious cards had sold out. It's quite likely that the kinds of people who want to send pictures of Littlebay Beejeezuz buy them from church bazaars, charities and religious bookshops, but not from Clintons.

As ever, it's the offhand comment, the un-noticed parenthesis, that reveals where the Daily Mail is really coming from.

Critics said card manufacturers and shops must not abandon British shoppers who wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.

And we have a rant from a random Tory:

Conservative MP Philip Davies said card manufacturers who ditched Christmas symbols were falling victim to....

Can he do it? Will he manage to speak to the Daily Mail for 20 words without saying it?

...'politically correct madness.....I'm sure one reason is because of do-gooders sitting in offices who decide that Christmas is offensive to other religions so they must scrub all Christian images.'

So. We start with a fact: 'Many cards have snowmen on them; some cards have silly jokes on them.' We go from this to 'Someone has decided that we must scrub all Christian images.' We then create a fantasy – literally without any evidence at all – that this has been done so as not to offend 'other religions'. And we end up saying that Clintons and Hallmark have 'abandoned' British people. The idea that there are millions of people, British or otherwise, who want to buy religious cards, but that greeting cards manufacturers have refused to sell them any for political reasons is so paranoid as to be laughable. But we are clearly meant to believe that this fictitious purge on 'all' Christian images is being done to 'British people' (i.e us) but 'other religions' (i.e Muslims). It will be remembered that twelve months ago the Mail particularly objected to the fact that Father Christmas had been banned from the town of Havant (which he hadn't) because the population there was 99.1% white. Me think England damn nice place. Much too nice for white man race.

Finally, we have a quote from our old friend Stephen Green, who the Mail introduces as

Stephen Green, of the religious group Christian Voice – which forced TV bosses to scrap plans to show the ‘blasphemous’ musical Jerry Springer: The Opera.

It might be more helpful to say 'Stephen Green, the fundamentalist fruitcake whose group Christian Voice want to ban mosques and enforce a kind of Christian sharia based on the book of Leviticus. And who still believe in the Angels of Mons. Oh and I have the video of Jerry Springer: The Opera. I taped it. Off the telly. Christian Voice didn't force anyone to scrap anything. Could I have another one of those nice looking pies please?' Green says that he wants people to go out of their way to buy religious cards. The Mail translates this as 'boycott irreligious cards', which is an interesting example of how their little brains work.

Mr Green is worried about cards with blasphemous jokes on them. The Daily Mail says that one card 'risks provoking Christians' (to do what?)

by suggesting that the shepherds only saw the angel appear on the hillside because they were hallucinating after smoking drugs.

Further down, they quote the joke verbatim. There is an angel with a trumpet in the background, and one of the the shepherds in the foreground is saying:

'I don't know about you guys, but this sheep shit is really doing my head in.'

So the actual joke is 'one of the shepherds initially mistook the angel for an hallucination because he had been smoking drugs.' Similar jokes (shepherds quarreling about whether the angelic music is a dream or not) occur in the Medieval Mystery Plays: the shepherds are drunk and vulgar until they recognize the angel, when they stop quarreling and start looking for Jesus. It doesn't particularly matter; either way, the card is in pretty poor taste. But it is interesting that the Mail's automatic reflex is to slightly distort the story. (It will be remembered that the humour free Stephen Green repeatedly said 'This opera says that Jesus Christ was a nappy fetishist' where the more boring truth was 'This opera makes a weak joke about the fact that the loincloth used in many paintings of the crucifixion looks a bit like a nappy.')

I read that Tescos have started selling ready made Shepherd Costumes and Virgin Mary Costumes for small children because they noticed that their sales of tea-towels quadruple during the nativity play season. Clintons sell Christening cards because people buy them. They don't sell Littlebay Beejeezuz cards, because no-one wants them. Happy Eeyore has replaced Gloomy Eeyore because thats what sells. It's Thatcherism gone mad, I tell you. You'd think that the Daily Mail might approve.

7 comments:

Pete said...

Does it make me a bad person that I'm more offended by Happy Eeyore than stoned shepherds?

Oh, BTW: http://www.b3ta.com/board/6637071

Happy Yulestice from the mock pagan community (where are our cards coevered in druids sacrificing goats then? It's PC gone mad, I tell you..."

Mags said...

That's the happy Disney Eeyore, I suspect. *spits*

If the shops suddenly started stocking lots of BVM stuff, mightn't we see a campaign about the dangerous rise in Catholicism?

I went looking for secular cards last week. Those that did say 'season's greetings' inside tend to mention Christmas on the outside, or use religious iconography such as sheperds, angels, kings on camels, stars and little towns of Bethlehem. A set with a lovely 1960s graphic design of baubles on the outside and "This card reads 'seasons greetings'" on the sticker turned out, if you angled the back to see under the sticker, to say 'Merry Christmas' on them. And that was all in WHSmug. Grr.

Andrew said...

Andrew, I've notcied that in the last few months you seem to have increasingly devoted your weblog to the sillier rantings of your country's right. Given, though, that the utter lack of chance that there will be a Conservative government in the near future renders these folks ineffectual buffoons, why bother? It merely raises your blood pressure.

Andrew Reeves

Helen Louise said...

Ah, thank gooodness for that entry, I was worried I'd have to be the one to point out just how ridiculous that article was.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Come to think of it, the very first Christmas Card was essentially secular, and the associated wikipedia article suggests that wasn't an isolated phenomenon:

The first commercial Christmas cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London, 1843... The picture, of a family with a small child drinking wine together, proved controversial... Early English cards rarely showed winter or religious themes, instead favoring flowers, fairies and other fanciful designs that reminded the recipient of the approach of spring. Humorous and sentimental images of children and animals were popular, as were increasingly elaborate shapes, decorations and materials.

This site has a much longer history, with examples - fat children and robins seem to predominate in the Victorian era.

None of which, when I think about it, is particularly surprising. The "traditional Christmas" that was invented by the Victorian middle classes and popularized in "A Christmas Carol" has always been basically secular. So perhaps the real shock here is that the Daily Mail has started to reject Victorian values.

FromGoogle said...

Even before Sam posted, I tried a similar bit of not-exactly-scientific research, just out of curiosity. I entered >Victorian Christmas Card< into Google's image search. The first page of 20 images that came up were all Victorian-looking Christmas cards - someone else can check them for authenticity. Precisely one of those thumbnail images had identifiably religious content. It appears to be a picture of St. Nicholas, in a white-and-red robe (but with a crozier), giving gifts to small children.

Clintons cards are pretty naff anyway. My local charity shop can supply plenty of cards with Renaissance religious art, if any Daily Mail readers want it, alongside the tastefully restrained gold and silver foil things. (And if anyone here has a space on their virtual mantlepiece, feel free to pick up my own terribly secular digital card.)

--
Phil Masters
(Apparently confusing the system by having multiple sign-ins from different places Google have bought...)

Emily said...

Seems perfectly logical to me that basically-secular Christmas cards should be more popular than basically religious ones; assuming you only want to buy a single package of Christmas cards, and assuming that most people have at least one non-Christian friend, the simplest thing is to get the secular cards even if you personally are religious.

Unless, that is, you don't care about offending your friends.