Read all about and hear this episode at theallusionist.org/winterval.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, swaddle myself in language and lay myself in a manger.
Coming up in today’s show: a festive case of if you repeat a lie enough times, that makes it as good as true, right? Post-truth is not a new phenomenon for 2016, friends…
This episode is sponsored by Oxford Games. You remember the founder Leslie Scott from the Word Play episode last year - she invented Jenga when she was barely out of school, and since then has added a lot of great games to the Oxford Games lineup, including Ex Libris where you have to bluff people into believing your version of books’ first and last lines. I know people are saying 2016 has been a terrible year, but one bright spot in it was when, after years of losses, I won a game of Ex Libris for the first time ever! Oxford Games are excellent fun for all the generations, and a good way not to talk about politics for a bit at gatherings. Yes please!
Allusionist listeners get 15% off any of the Oxford Games games if you use the discount code ALL15 when you shop at oxfordgames.co.uk - if you’re in the USA, make sure to select the special shipping option for you at checkout.
I’m going to suggest a game to play during this episode, actually; a drinking game - one swig every time you hear the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’. Nothing too strong, I don’t want you to have passed out before the end of the story.
On with the show.
HZ: The War on Christmas - when did that start?
Upon the birth of Jesus Christ himself, when King Herod ordered all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem be killed?
In 1644, when Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans passed an ordinance prohibiting Christmas celebrations?
In 1659, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans managed to get Christmas banned for 22 years for being a pagan festival?
Or was it in 1998, in Britain’s second largest city, Birmingham? If you picked up practically any newspaper at the time, you would have read that Birmingham city council had renamed Christmas ‘Winterval’.
MONTAGE OF QUOTATIONS FROM NEWSPAPERS:
....Birmingham will celebrate the festive season as usual this year with carol singing, fairy lights and street entertainment - but don’t call it 'Christmas'. Council officials have renamed it ‘Winterval’ in the hope of creating a more multi-cultural atmosphere in keeping with the city’s mix of ethnic groups.
...a ‘politically correct’ decision to call Christmas festivities ‘Winterval’...
...Cancel Christmas, call it Winterval...
...Birmingham council, claiming it was anxious not to offend those in other faiths, renamed Christmas ‘Winterval’...
...Crazy council chiefs provoked outrage last night after naming Christmas festivities 'Winterval’...
...Political correctness gone mad...
...Churchmen believe the Winterval name is intended to avoid offending Muslims and other minorities…
...A municipal brainwave called Winterval, renaming the annual holiday and linking it to shopping rather than shepherds...
...The word Winterval has a nasty echo of communists who banned any Christian connotation in East Germany...
...Political correctness gone mad!
HZ: And verily, in Britain, Christmas was banished. Now we sing Winterval carols and wear ironic Winterval sweaters; we hang up our Winterval stockings for Father Winterval to fill with Winterval gifts; and when we turn on the radio, we rock around the Winterval tree to these festive tunes:
Clips of festive pop songs with the word 'Christmas' replaced with 'Winterval'
Mud, 'Lonely This Christmas':
It'll be lonely this WINTERVAL
Without you to hold...
The Waitresses, 'Christmas Wrapping'
Merry WINTERVAL, Merry WINTERVAL, but I think I'll miss this one this year.
Merry WINTERVAL, Merry WINTERVAL...
Mariah Carey, 'All I Want for Christmas Is You'
All I want for WINTERVAL is...
HZ: Yep, that’s exactly what happened. Well, it’s about as true as most things that have been said about Winterval. Which came about thanks to one Mike Chubb.
MIKE CHUBB: Hi, my name is Mike Chubb. You could say that I was the one that has caused the furore that is Winterval.
HZ: In the late 90s, Mike Chubb was the head of events for Birmingham City council.
MC: As the manager of this huge event section in the city council and my team of something like 30, we we came up with this terminology Winterval. It's like a portmanteau word for 'winter’ and ‘festival'.
HZ: I thought it was a portmanteau of 'winter' and 'interval', I must say, to sort of suggest it's like this hiatus in the year.
MC: No, it's between 'winter' and 'festival'.
HZ: It's a good portmanteau. It's quite elegant.
HZ: Until it became shorthand for ‘War on Christmas’ with a side of ‘political correctness gone mad’.
It started well enough with Birmingham’s first Winterval in 1997. Events ran over several weeks and were attended by hundreds of thousands of people, without complaints from the press or the populace. So it’s not clear why the following year’s Winterval became a wincident.
But it did.
In November 1998, the then Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer - no, not as in ‘Claus’ - Mark Santer issued his Christmas message to the clergy of the diocese. It said:
I wonder what madness is in store for us this Christmas? I confess I laughed out loud when our city council came out with 'Winterval' as a way of not talking about Christmas! No doubt it was a well meaning attempt not to offend, not to exclude; not really to say anything at all.
HZ: And soon the papers got hold of it. On 8th November 1998 the Birmingham Sunday Mercury reported that the Bishop of Birmingham had condemned the city council’s attempt to rebrand Christmas.
MC: And what happened then was ... all those papers who thought, "Hey, this is a good wheeze, not much news at Christmas, is there? Let's use an interesting story." "Did you know Birmingham city council have cancelled Christmas, or renamed Christmas 'Winterval'?" And thereafter it went nationwide and worldwide.
HZ: The only person who didn’t notice was Mike Chubb.
MC: I was so busy at the time I didn't take in any of the media furore at the time. It just didn't touch me at all, because literally we worked 41 days non-stop day and night.
HZ: Busy work, waging the war on Christmas. Except that wasn’t really what Mike and the council were doing during the war on the war on Christmas. In this war, only one side turned up to the battlefield.
MC: It was the media really that actually took it on: people like the Daily Mail. Just Google 'Winterval' and just look at the organizations who are up in arms about it. They're up in arms because they've been led to believe that that's what Birmingham City Council intended.
HZ: It wasn’t?
MC: No. Christmas was never off the page; it was part of a 41-day festival of events.
HZ: But people thought you were trying to rebrand Christmas.
MC: Yes. They said "it's political correctness gone mad."
HZ: But actually, political correctness had not gone mad; political correctness had not even been a factor. Because the council’s events team was not trying to rebrand Christmas. It was trying to bundle together a whole lot of events occurring in the weeks before and after Christmas.
MC: To market single events takes a great deal of money and a great deal of time. It is a lot easier if you actually find some way of putting it under, if you like, a marketing banner, under which all these specific events take place, each one with its own marketing campaign, each one with its own raison d'etre for being there.
HZ: Birmingham is Britain’s second-largest city, with a very culturally and ethnically diverse population; there’s a lot of stuff going on, particularly at that time of year. Hence they decided to use the marketing banner ‘Winterval’.
MC: It does what it says on the tin. It markets a major festival, at a time of the year called 'winter', and there're all sorts of things that happen in winter. You know, Divali happens in winter, BBC Children in Need happens in winter, Chinese New Year happens in winter, New Year's Eve happens in winter...
HZ: ...Hannukah, Eid - Oh. And Christmas. Christmas lights, Christmas market, Christmas trees, Christmas carols...
MC: It was still called Christmas. That particular event which included the Christmas lights switch on, a whole a month full of events over Christmas - that came under Christmas. It was termed 'Christmas'. It had his own brochure: 'Christmas'! But unfortunately people decided not to see that. They decided that that's what the council did.
HZ: Shortly after the war on Winterval erupted in the papers, the council actually issued a statement that they were not renaming Christmas, and Christmas was very visibly a major part of the Winterval line-up. But which story sticks more: the true one, that Winterval was a marketing and admin umbrella, or the lie, that Winterval had come to kill Christmas?
MC: Nobody actually could see the simplicity of the Winterval brand. But they read into it they wanted, to give voice to their own aspirations and prejudices.
HZ: Now, personally, I’ve noticed significantly more uproar about the war on Christmas than actual evidence that that war is being waged. Some people seem very eager for there to be a war on Christmas so they can leap to Christmas’s defence. Though Christmas has achieved cultural dominance way beyond religious lines, to cast it as an underdog provides a cover for taking a pop at other cultures. And to create and maintain divisions in society.
Christmas is a pagan-Roman-Christian festival, celebrated by people from all sorts of cultures with all sorts of beliefs, including me, an ethnically Jewish atheist.
Christmas is not threatened by multiculturalism. It is multicultural.
MC: People don't like change. They're scared of change. And to a certain extent, Winterval was used as an example of a change that's gone too far, because they misread what the organizers are trying to do.
HZ: And they continued to misread it. After 1998, Birmingham didn’t run Winterval again, but in the following years, the Winterval myth was repeated dozens of times in Britain’s national newspapers. In fact, in 2011, after running one such piece, the Daily Mail had to print a retraction saying that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas.
But, too little, too late: 'Winterval' had already become the byword for political correctness gone mad.
MC: And it still continues.
HZ: Just a few weeks ago in the British Parliament, Shailesh Vara, the Conservative MP for North-West Cambridgeshire, told Prime Minister Theresa May:
Shailesh Vara: minority communities should respect the views and traditions of mainstream Britain and that means Christmas is not Winterval, and Christmas trees are not festive trees.
Theresa May: I do agree with my honourable friend.
HZ: Well we can all agree with him that Christmas is not Winterval, since it never was Winterval.
MC: It's so simple. It's not difficult; it's just certain people just decide to say what they want to say. Maybe they want to create a bit of a stir because it sells papers.
HZ: But in a way, as a marketing story, it is very successful because the brand really clung on. If you just called it, I don't know, 'Birmingham winter holidays', no one would...
MC: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
HZ: It's just unfortunate that the brand had been so misinterpreted.
MC: That's right. That's right. Yeah.
HZ: If you had your time again, would you do it differently?
HZ: Good for you!
MC: People have got to experiment; they've got to introduce - and the public need to be introduced to - new exciting initiatives, because otherwise we're just going to live in a very dull society.
HZ: It’s not too dull with Mike Chubb around - he’s now the director of the Ideas Factory, staging some very exciting events. Find it at theideasfactory.biz. And thanks Mike for letting me dredge up the Winterval thing. Again. It’s not all bad, though: Waterford in southern Ireland is throwing its fifth annual Winterval and it is the city’s biggest event each year. So Winterval lives on. As does Christmas.
This episode was sponsored by Bombas, who took great pains to expertly engineer socks so they don’t slip, they give your feet extra support, and you don’t get blisters. They’re currently offering some big bulk-buying discounts, if you need a lot of socks for Winterval gifts - but you’ll get 20% off any purchase of four or more pairs at bombas.com.
This episode is also sponsored by Poo-Pourri, the before-you-go toilet spray that is pretty useful to keep around the place at times of festive feasting. Your lavatories are likely to be in for some heavy bombardments. But spritz Poo-Pourri into the bowl prior to that, and the combinations of essential oils will trap odours beneath the surface of the water. Keep your Winterval celebrations fragrant: visit poopourri.com and enter the code ‘WORDS’ to get 20% off your next order.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Cheeka Eyers and Devon Taylor, and music by Martin Austwick.
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