It's a mildly encouraging sign of more temperate times that Christmas has taken less of a mauling this year. For a number of years, there was a predictable harvest of news stories featuring a school board, a municipality, some hypersensitive public servant calling for the banning of a Christmas tree or the elimination of certain traditional carols, or insisting on the neutral Happy Holidays. They were all essentially the same: some hypersensitive grinch complaining of being ground down, of being "offended" by the oppressive Christian cast of this most Christian of holidays.
These were always wearisome, tedious little controversies. I always suspected the majority of them were not really about being "offended" so much as an opportunity to advertise a "brave" non-conformist bent, a little adolescent outraging of the bourgeoisie. For a while, such actions had become both numerous and predictable, almost - dare I say it - a new tradition of Christmas in modern times. It's encouraging to see them wilting.
It was never clear, really, what there was to be offended about. The whole idea of Christmas as it has evolved from a purely Christian holy day to a kind of generic manifestation of goodwill and cheerfulness - the one day of the year explicitly, determinedly, given over to emphasizing and manifesting an extra-kindliness to family, friends and every stranger - seems a very difficult one to take offence from. Who, really, could take offence from the practice of giving presents to children? Or, with the core message of this season, which is - however mutilated in practice - the idea of "peace on Earth, goodwill toward men."
Or, with the deep emphasis Christmas has always placed on accord with loved ones. I think, just to give a single instance, of the great return migrations to my home province of Newfoundland from Fort McMurray, Alta. Any time after Dec. 20, if someone in Toronto is looking for an impromptu Christmas party, I recommend heading out to Pearson Airport for a gate with a St. John's posting on it. If you have an ear for such things you can hear the buzz of the Newfoundland accents from a good hundred yards. It's a long slog in the cramped cabins of Air Canada or WestJet from Fort McMurray to St. John's or Gambo, or Trepassey or Twillingate, but every year now for well over a decade, hundreds if not thousands of Newfoundlanders eagerly, fervently embrace it.
The real Christmas spirit is alive and vigorous among the exiles of the oil sands. Would there were a modern-day Dickens to wrap it in an appropriate fable.
This is a difficult phenomenon to pick a quarrel with. But we live in a morbidly prickly age, and a hyper-consciously politically correct one and there have been souls - if that is not too large a term - who took umbrage at the singing of Silent Night and would flinch at being the target of so non-inclusive a greeting as Merry Christmas. But not as many, it seems, this year. Maybe it's a backlash against the backlash to traditional Christmas. It doesn't seem quite as daring this year to offer the traditional greeting, rather than the timid, mingy, costive Happy Holiday. I don't see quite as many ads for the winter solstice or those other evasive circumlocutions.
Maybe it's because 2009 has been so tumultuous and anxious a year, and we've gotten through it without the worst that some imagined, and few spoke of, happening. Perhaps this piece of good fortune puts a stay to more niggardly emotions, to those petty flares of egotism and self-regard that fuelled most of the "anti-Christmas" preciousness. Or maybe it's all much simpler. Maybe the great tidal force of common sense is reasserting itself. I have never really understood at all, in matters of this kind - certain human-rights complaints come equally to mind - why the objections of one or a few should have government over the innocent wishes and practices sanctioned by the tradition of millions. Why the merest flyspeck of "offence" should work to impoverish what Dr. Johnson, in a different context, called the "public stock of harmless pleasure."
It is one of the great injuries of political correctness that the merriment of the many should be held hostage by the righteousness of the one or the few. Yielding to this doctrine diminishes us. It evacuates much of what, innocently, we hold in common. In the mistaken attempt to show we are sensitive, we abrade the traditions and practices that constitute the binding forces of our society.
Diversity is one of the real glories of Canadian life. But there is a glory too in what we all share and enjoy in common, in the traditions that have evolved with each generation, some in pleasure and some in pain, and of which surely the cheerfulness and benevolence of Christmas - the enjoyment of family and friends, thought toward those less fortunate - is something of a crown. Merry Christmas.
Rex Murphy is a commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup .