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Commentary: Winter Break – What’s in a name?

I never cease to be amazed at the kind of hatred and racism that is uncovered by issues like the Chilliwack school trustees’ recent decision to rename the “winter holidays” held at local schools as the “Christmas holidays.” I read the story online at the Province’s website and was shocked not only by the number of responses it generated – 95 at last check – but by some of the comments written by readers, many of which were removed by moderators due to their offensive content. I was surprised and disappointed to find that many of them revealed an “us vs. them” mentality that I feel we should have moved past long ago, this among both Christian and non-Christian individuals. As Canadians, we pride ourselves on our inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity, but apparently not when it comes to something as touchy as religion.

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I never cease to be amazed at the kind of hatred and racism that is uncovered by issues like the Chilliwack school trustees’ recent decision to rename the “winter holidays” held at local schools as the “Christmas holidays.” I read the story online at the Province’s website and was shocked not only by the number of responses it generated – 95 at last check – but by some of the comments written by readers, many of which were removed by moderators due to their offensive content. I was surprised and disappointed to find that many of them revealed an “us vs. them” mentality that I feel we should have moved past long ago, this among both Christian and non-Christian individuals. As Canadians, we pride ourselves on our inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity, but apparently not when it comes to something as touchy as religion.

Here’s a sample of the kind of comments that were found under the article: “MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!!!! I’m so glad my school board has guts, just wish our government did. For all those alternate ethnicities who think we should be calling it ‘winter vacation’……….. take a vacation, go home to your own country for the holidays and refresh your memory as to why you came to my country.”

I find this so ignorant and insulting that I have a hard time even knowing where to begin explaining why I feel this way. The comment board was peppered with examples like this, many of which suggested that those who objected to the name change should “go home.” Many posters also expressed the notion that Canada is a fundamentally Christian country due to the fact that the Christian faith was held by those who initially colonized it. Christianity is therefore said to be a core part of Canadian culture that must be accepted by all “foreigners” who choose to live here.

Nowhere to be found is the point that since Christian Europeans were not the first people to live in Canada, it is disrespectful to the First Nations community to assume that Canada is fundamentally Christian. Nowhere is the point that many people who object to the name change are not non-European immigrants, but the non-religious or non-Christian descendants of the European immigrants who initially colonized Canada. In fact, British Columbia is the least religious province in Canada; according to a 2001 census by Statistics Canada, 10 per cent of Canadians subscribed to a non-Christian faith, and 35 per cent of Canadians had no religious affiliation at all. When 45 percent of the population is non-Christian, even the argument of majority rule seems pretty weak.

While it certainly can seem petty to debate something as seemingly small as a name change, it’s not about the name so much as it is about the principle. We pride ourselves on being a diverse and inclusive country, and our policies and the names of things in our public institutions should reflect that.

Although I personally do not have any religious affiliation, I am not opposed to religion.  What I am opposed to is upholding one religious or non-religious practice as better as or more important than another, particularly within a public institution like a school. When you choose to refer to it as a “Christmas” break, although numerous other celebrations occur around the same time as Christmas, and although many people – European-Canadian and otherwise – do not celebrate any religious holidays at all, you are upholding the beliefs of one group as more significant than all others. When you argue that Canada is fundamentally Christian, and that all the non-European “foreigners” who take offense to that should go back to their countries of origin, you insult not only these “foreigners,” but European-Canadians and First Nations individuals as well. How is the First Nations individual who would prefer it to be referred to as “winter break” going to “go back to where [he/she] came from”?  It boggles the mind.

We preach religious and cultural tolerance and understanding, but it is not always evident in the way that we do things. Nobody is suggesting that Christmas be eliminated altogether, or that Christians should not be free to practice their faith. What they are suggesting is that – as a diverse nation – we should be respectful of all cultures and religions, which means not giving one idea or practice precedence over any other. Either include all religious celebrations and respect non-religious individuals, or don’t talk about it at all. And on that note: happy holidays, everyone.

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