Christmas or winterval?

My colleague Mark Pritchard obtained a debate in Westminster Hall yesterday on the way some authorities in the UK wish to play down Christmas as a Christian festival, replacing references to the birth of Christ with more to the success of Mammon.

He spoke well, to a largely empty chamber. MPs do not regard Westminster Hall as a proper substitute for the main Commons Chamber, seeing it more as a reminder of how the government has damaged our Parliament, limiting the time and the topicality of main Chamber debates to avoid too much scrutiny. I was therefore pleased that the BBC picked up Mark’s debate and gave some of the ideas from it wider coverage.

Many people in the UK, of all faiths and none, understand that Christmas without some recognition of the birth of Christ is absurd. The lights, decorations and spirit behind the festival should reflect the origins of it. The general message of thinking of others and bringing families together extends well beyond Christians in its appeal.There has been a lot of nonsense talked about Christmas. Some have renamed it winterval?, and some companies and institutions have taken all reference to the Christmas story out of their cards and messages. It’s like seeing Hamlet without the Prince.

I am glad most of our primary schools still put on their nativity plays and sing carols. I am delighted that many of the cards I am receiving still manage to say Happy Christmas whilst illustrating the traditions of the holiday season. Most people of other faiths and of none appreciate that this mid winter break represents the coming together of the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth with older pagan winter festivals. The plum pudding and the groaning tables go back a long way and are enjoyed by most, whilst the cards, presents, pine trees and Christmas cakes were embellishments of the Victorians who saw a commercial opportunity with the growing wealth and incomes of their society. They wanted to make the tills ring as well as the Church bells. Our retailers are hoping that is not just a fairy story this year.

It is a special time for children, who become excited by the thought of presents and by the magic of the stories the birth of Jesus in a manger, and the folklore of Santa Claus and his famous reindeers. They accept and enjoy the glorious muddle of these traditions for what they are great fun, a welcome respite during the colder and darker part of the year, and days of religious significance for those who do believe in Christ.

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4 Comments

  1. Simon_C
    Posted December 6, 2007 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I think it's a great idea for Christmas to get back to it's roots. After all, christmas feasting was around a long time before christ. I think christmas should reflect back to it's origins more. The winter solstice festival that was widely celebrated in northern Europe before the early christian missionaries started spreading christianity. The early christians then "embraced and extended" it into the christian festival.

    The way the mid-winter festival has been celebrated has changed many times in our history, the latest change being instigated as a coca-cola marketing campaign which morphed Santa's colours from green/white to red/white around the 1930s I think. I think it would be great to teach this history to children as they are preparing for their winter plays, (whether nativity or otherwise)

  2. David
    Posted December 16, 2007 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Why is it that in Sudan, a teacher can get sentenced to 15 days in prison for letting her class name a teddy bear Mohammed and yet in this country, the Government lets different religions and local Councils re-write history and the Bible and in so doing they are changing our beliefs and our religion by removing Christmas and replacing it with Winterval! If people that have come to this country with their own beliefs and their own Religions can't pay respect to our religions and beliefs (i.e. Christmas) why should we be so hospitable to theirs?! And if they dislike it so much then why chose to come to this country in the first place! I say we stick with our beliefs and Religion and if other people don't like it well TOUGH LUCK!!

  3. Mike Weaver
    Posted December 16, 2007 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    I have been happy to be English for 73 years,so have many memories of traditional chistmases albeit less comercialized.
    At my age I am hopeful that I shall be spared too many wintervals. no wonder this is fast becoming a sad , demoralized Nation, with little trust in politics,just ruled by the jackboot of perverted political correctness

    happy HUMBUG winterval

  4. michael chubb
    Posted November 18, 2008 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Ten years on from the Winterval row

    Michael Chubb, the man behind Birmingham’s much-criticised Winterval festival, dismisses claims that it was an attempt to abolish Christmas.

    Whilst marketed as Winterval, each event had its own marketing plan but clearly it was Winterval that drove the initiative.

    Google Winterval and you get nearly 18,000 results.

    Investigate further and you have an amazing array of personal comments from pukka broadsheets to off-the-wall blog sites to Birmingham’s own Post: “Christmas has been rebranded Winterval”.

    Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian in 1998 investigated thoroughly and found that claims of a PC campaign against Christmas were “pure nonsense”.

    He went on: “Perhaps the most notorious of the anti-Christmas rebrandings is Winterval, in Birmingham. According to an official statement from the Council, Winterval – which ran in 1997 and 1998, and never since – was a promotional campaign to drive business into Birmingham’s newly regenerated town centre.

    “It began in early November and finished in January. During the part of that period traditionally celebrated as Christmas there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the Council House, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.”

    None of that, though, was enough to prevent a protest movement at the time, whose members included the then Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, as well as two members of UB40”.

    When asked about the de-Christianisation of Christmas, Julian Bond of the Christian Muslim Forum, admitted that evidence was hard to come by.

    He added: “You know, we were in Birmingham for a meeting the other day and there’s a big Merry Christmas banner in the middle of New Street.”

    I think it is now time to put my head above the parapet and declare why I have been asked to write this article.

    Pretty simple really, I was the one that coined the term “Winterval”.

    I was Head of Events for Birmingham, responsible for over 400 events a year from St. George’s Day to Fireworks Fantasia, international street festivals to… yes Christmas.

    As an events division (the largest in the UK at that time) we were always seeking to improve the service to the Birmingham community and whilst we aided specific communities to develop their own festivals, Diwali, Chinese New Year, St Patrick’s Day to Gay Pride, mainly because we had the professional expertise to help those communities realise their ambitions, our remit extended to all festivals and events.

    All were to be totally inclusive and the majority free or at an affordable price.

    In my first Christmas, Birmingham received national coverage, Blue Peter launched the Christmas lights switch on and Eamonn Holmes’s How Do They Do That? show closed its Christmas edition with a burst of flame projectors on the Town Hall… “and a happy Christmas from Birmingham!”.

    As Head of Events with such a professional team behind me, it was always important to deliver bigger and better events more often than not though with reduced funding.

    The imperative for delivering these events was to maximize the quality of the experience, increase our audiences and deliver Birmingham as a forward thinking energetic city.

    Promoting the events to a local, national and international audience and thereby gaining recognition was vital to the council’s overall aims and objectives. Recognition of a city’s innovative approach reflects on all.

    To businesses considering relocating, to increasing bed nights to the hotel sector, to marketing the city’s retail offer – all these were factored in.

    So to Winterval. The events division were charged with putting on 41 days and nights of activity that ranged from BBC Children in Need, to the Christmas Lights Switch On, to a Frankfurt Christmas Market, outdoor ice rink, Aston Hall by Candlelight, Diwali, shopping at Christmas, world class theatre and arts plus, of course, New Year’s Eve with its massive 100,000 audience. With funding from sponsors and with very many more events to market, the decision was to bring all the events together under a generic banner under which they could all sit.

    Whilst marketed as Winterval, each event had its own marketing plan but clearly it was Winterval that drove the initiative.

    Leaving Birmingham, to another job, I started to notice the ridiculous banshee that pervaded Winterval.

    So as originator of Winterval, what are my thoughts?.

    Rather like Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian, that it’s nonsense and I feel that around the festive season, when news is fairly thin on the ground, the media seek out what they term “silly season” stories.

    Political correctness was never the reasoning behind Winterval, but yes it was intended to be inclusive, which is no bad thing to my mind, and a brand to which other initiatives could be developed as part of the Winterval offer in order to sell Birmingham at a time when all cities are competing against each other for the seasonal trade.

    I do believe that those who took umbrage did it for their own reasons, to peddle their own message and of course, everybody got on to their own hobby horses in the process.

    I am amazed that no-one could see the simplicity of The Winterval brand, but read into it what they wanted; to further and give voice to their own aspirations and prejudices.

    Maybe, perhaps , the opportunists will now put away their righteous indignation and reflect on what the city has lost. A unique festival that celebrates what Birmingham is world famous for. A city that shares and celebrates with a sense of style and adventure.

    It is time for Birmingham to be proud of Winterval and stand up for an innovative initiative that befits an outward looking city.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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