Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Easy Solution To The 'Holiday' Controversy - Celebrate Everything

twas_the_night

As a professional communicator for a major Canadian airport, the 'holiday' season is the busiest time of year, with the holiday passenger rush soon to be upon us and retail activity ramping up. And with Edmonton International Airport's humungous Expansion 2012 project now completed and a whole new raft of new shopping and dining amenities to show off to the world, this year's Christmas season has been the airport's busiest ever. A fun little tempest for a newly minted airport communicator to be thrown into, that's for sure!

At Edmonton International Airport there has to my knowledge been no discussion of muting explicit mentions of 'Christmas'. While the messaging around the season has consisted of a mix of 'Happy Holidays' and 'Merry Christmas', the overall thrust of the seasonal marketing has been steeped in Yuletide, with Christmas Trees, Santa's Storyland, children's choirs and so on. Moreover, this has taken place without any hint of controversy - at least that I'm aware of - in spite of the fact that EIA possesses a thoroughly multicultural workforce representing all the major world religions. I've asked, and nobody I've spoken to has been even remotely bothered.

Nevertheless, tune into any major conservative-leaning media outlet (especially in the United States but to a lesser degree here) and you would think that Christmas were a small beleaguered Middle Eastern country being bombarded by missiles from irate hostile states. Christmas, we're told, is under attack by the 'liberal' politically correct secular mainstream. I'm beginning to think this is much more an American problem, as I have never in my life heard of a 'Holiday Tree' or any other such nonsense talked about in any seriousness in any of the Canadian workplaces I've been in. Nor have I ever encountered a member of an ethnic or religious minority who has expressed dismay over overt references to Christmas. It's part of life here, and everyone seems to be okay with that.

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Bill O'Reilly, war correspondent from the Yuletide battlefront
In the US, however, the Christmas controversy appears to be very real indeed, and no 'holiday season' is complete without the latest outrage over nativity scenes and temper tantrums by angry atheists, accompanied by the predictable righteous indignation on the part of Fox News and like-minded outlets. As CNN reporter Timothy Stanley points out, the so-called 'war on Christmas' is bigger than simply partisan tomfoolery and conservative paranoia, and in fact reflects genuine tensions within American politics and society. He cites the example of Santa Monica, California's decision this year to terminate its traditional nativity scenes after this hallowed tradition turned into theatre of the absurd last year when a group of atheists won 11 out of 14 spaces, which they used to erect enormous critiques of Christianity. Clearly it's not just the conservatives making a spectacle of themselves.

While it may well be reflective of a cultural divide, I would argue that it's also a product of ignorance - on both sides. While the movement towards politically correct speech has played an important role in purging our public discourse of offensive and hurtful words, the secularist inclination towards denuding our culture of ritual and tradition is not only sad but also profoundly lazy. It is also entirely counterproductive from the standpoint of fostering genuine multiculturalism. Roughly one third of humanity professes Christianity as their religion. This includes a massive majority of Latin Americans and Sub-Saharan Africans as well as significant populations in South and Southeast Asia (particularly in the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines). How exactly does purging Christmas from our culture help these large and growing minorities in North American society feel at home?

As for the non-Christian minorities in our midst, purging our cultural mainstream of its traditional practices accomplishes nothing - while further highlighting our ignorance. The sad fact of the matter is that most white North Americans, for all of their supposed openness to diversity, are deeply ignorant of other cultures' rituals and celebrations. How many of us, for example, can name a single major Sikh holiday? What does the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha mark? Even many Christian holidays are off most Anglo-Saxon North Americans' radar, such as All Saints' Day. For most of us November 1 is Halloween Hangover Recovery Day, but for Mexicans and Filipinos, Día de Todos los Santos or Araw ng mga Santo is a very big deal.

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Real multiculturalism means having this guy's birthday in your calendar.
My solution to the whole issue? Don't subtract, just add. Celebrate everything. And as a professional communicator, especially for any organization with a multicultural and multi-confessional workforce, it's an easy but hugely impactful step to take. Make a list of all important holidays for staff and stakeholders, create Outlook alerts for each, and have specially crafted social media posts on standby for those occasions. It's really not hard, and most often it's relatively easy to find an appropriate salutation in the relevant languages, even through a casual Google search. Granted it's a good idea to run it past a person from the ethnic or religious minority in question before you use it lest you end up with something embarrassingly inappropriate on your Facebook page, but as internal communications strategies go, this is a pretty easy one.

They needn't be complicated, nor do you need to make a big show of giving Ramadan and Diwali equal stature with Christmas in the building's seasonal decor. In my experience a simple message wishing people well for Diwali, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Guru Nanak Jayanti or Tết Nguyên Đán goes a long way in generating goodwill and fostering engagement. And a basic level, it's also much more to celebrate more things than less. And as for Christmas, the way December 25 is celebrated in North American culture, at least by the vast majority of companies and public organizations, barely has any religion in it anyway. From a societal harmony standpoint, that's probably for the best. Keep the message about Santa, the Grinch and Tiny Tim and feathers will probably remain unruffled.

In the meantime EIA's corporate communications team will continue to give out cookies and other seasonal gifts to lucky passengers and wish them Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. So far not a single airline passenger has complained about this.

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