Sunday, 11 December 2011

The myth of Winterval

This is a post about one of the more pervasive British media myths of recent times: the notion that left-wing local authorities are replacing Christmas with an ersatz multicultural festival called "Winterval", in anticipation of or in response to pressure from minority communities in general and Muslims in particular.

Media blogger Kevin Arscott has produced a comprehensive analysis of the Winterval myth.  Though somewhat polemical in tone, it is meticulously researched and documented.  It kills the myth of Winterval stone dead, and should make uncomfortable reading for a succession of politicians, church leaders and journalists who have peddled the tale over the years.

It appears that Winterval was invented in 1997 by Mike Chubb, an employee of Birmingham City Council.  Chubb was looking for an umbrella term to use as a brand name for a season of religious and secular events that were scheduled to take place between 20 November and 31 December 1997.  The programme comprised
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.
There was no question of attempting to appease Muslims or any other community, and the Winterval festivities included various traditional Christmas events and paraphernalia.

Winterval was a success.  It was repeated once, the following year, and was then stopped.  The myth, however, had only just begun.  In the succeeding years, it would grow enormously in scope and influence, and would become a symbol for political and religious agendas that had little to do with the mundane matter of Birmingham City Council's marketing strategy in the late 1990s:
The myth was not just repeated... it was also gradually distorted to become ever more removed from the original misconception. What started as a myth that one council had rebranded or renamed Christmas became a pluralised, open-ended narrative that ‘councils’ and ‘authorities’ were in fact rebranding or renaming Christmas as ‘Winterval’.
The myth originated in 1998, the second year of Winterval, with a Christmas message from the Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer.  Bishop Santer was a well-known member of the Church of England's evangelical wing.  This is what he had to say:
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. Once it was religious people who were seen as killjoys; think of the 17th century Puritans trying to ban Christmas festivities. Now, it seems, the secular world, which professes respect for all, is actually deeply embarrassed by faith.
Santer's message formed the basis for the first Winterval scare article, which was published by the Birmingham Sunday Mercury on 8 November 1998.  Despite the fact that the Council immediately denied that Winterval was an attempt to replace Christmas, the story was picked up by the nationals the next day, and appeared in the Mail, the Sun, the Times, the Mirror and the Guardian.  The early articles included the Council's denial, but to no avail.  Within a couple of months, the myth had received 26 mentions.  In the coming years, it would receive many more.

Interestingly, the myth gained rather than lost strength over the years.  Up to 2004, it was mentioned 75 times in the press.  By contrast, it received 207 mentions between 2005 and 2010.

How did the myth become so pervasive?  The answer lies in the fact that it appealed simultaneously to two prominent and vocal constituencies: Christian leaders opposed to secularism and political conservatives opposed to multiculturalism.  In the former camp, the myth was started by Bishop Santer of Birmingham and was repeated by Bishop Nigel McCullough of Manchester (2003), Archbishop John Sentamu of York (2006), Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales (2007) and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey (2010).  In the latter camp, the myth was repeated by William Hague (2000), David Cameron (2006 and 2007) and Eric Pickles (2010).  "Winterval" provided a convenient and memorable brand name for wide-ranging concerns about religion, cultural identity, Islam, immigration and liberal politics.

The increasing popularity of the myth after 2005 reflects the increasing strength of these concerns.  British troops were in Iraq, New Labour had just won a third term, and jihadis were attacking the London transport system.  It is probably no coincidence that Muslims started to become mentioned specifically in Winterval stories around this time (though the Sun had already singled them out for special mention back in 1998).  Meanwhile, in religious circles, figures like Lord Carey were expressing increasing concerns that Christians were suffering discrimination amidst a series of court cases in which the judiciary affirmed the secular character of modern British law.  The Winterval story acted as a useful shorthand for all this.  It was too good not to be true.

The tide didn't even begin to turn until 2006.  In that year, Birmingham City Council took out a full page advert in the national press to announce that it still celebrates Christmas, while the first debunking of the myth was published in the Guardian.  Mike Chubb finally surfaced to rebut the myth in 2008, and Kevin Arscott published his report in 2010.  Last month, the impossible happened and the Mail published an apology relating to its use of the term "Winterval" in an article from September.  It is likely that media outlets will be more circumspect in bandying the myth about in the future.

So much for Winterval.  One wonders what "political correctness gone mad" story will rise up to replace it in the lead-up to Christmas each year.  We probably won't have to wait for long to find out.