The War on Christmas: Part 94

The annual hysteria is manufactured and unnecessary and needs to stop.

Well, it's that time of year again. The mother of all manufactured controversies. It's the War on Christmas!

Once again, Christians are lashing out at secularists and the non-religious under the pretence that Christmas is under attack. In the United States, there is renewed controversy over billboards and bus ads carrying atheist messages.

The Fox News host Bill O'Reilly claimed the posters were designed only "to offend people who enjoy Christmas". So what are the messages that are causing such dire offence during this holiest of seasons? "Millions of people are good without God", "Don't believe in God? You are not alone" and "You know it's a myth. This year, celebrate reason!".

Can someone explain how encouraging people to be intellectually honest about their beliefs is offensive?

These posters and slogans are not designed to convert believers into non-believers. Even the most controversial slogan ("You know it's a myth") is clearly aimed at people who already think that way. It is a means of encouraging non-believers to be public about who they are and what they do or do not believe. Is that so dangerous?

Why is it OK in the US and in Britain to plaster Christian slogans and posters everywhere, but when secular causes do the same it is "an attack" on Christianity and on Christmas? It seems to happen all the time.

Remember when the "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" slogans appeared on buses and billboards in 2008. Or, the example that won't seem to go away, that Birmingham City Council once had a winter marketing campaign that it called "Winterval". There are always these types of stories in the news, and they are totally manufactured and utterly unnecessary.

In contrast to these "attacks", there is the Christian side of the argument. I see a poster at a bus stop every morning on the way in to work which depicts an image of a child in the womb with a halo around its head. The poster reads "Christmas starts with Christ". Is that not the same thing that these atheist posters are doing, but for Christianity? Of course it is. Yet, where is the controversy? I have seen nobody complain about these posters and have seen no news stories about them causing offence. Christian preaching is apparently fine, whereas atheists are held to a much harsher standard because people don't like what they're saying.

As an atheist, I could find the poster very annoying, mostly because the only way in which Christmas starts with Christ is in the word. The celebration itself pre-dates Christianity by a great many years. Stories were being told of gods being born as men on 25 December to a virgin mother for centuries before Jesus was ever reported to have lived. Christmas the celebration does not start with Christ. Christianity hijacked 25 December from paganism in order to make conversion easier. After all, if you still celebrate on the same day, what difference does it make?

Despite that, though, I am not going to demand that the poster be taken down, or claim that secular society is "under attack", or anything like that. That is because the person or organisation that commissioned the poster was well within its rights to do so. Just like atheist groups have the right to encourage people to be honest about their non-belief. It is not an attack. It never is.

The "War on Christmas" rhetoric has become a perpetual-motion machine of modern journalism. Every year, reactionary journalists will howl about some "PC" measure that is waging war on Christmas, and not-so-reactionary journalists will have to take their time to debunk the claims.

I appreciate the irony that, by writing this piece, I have become a cog in the perpetual "War on Christmas" machine, but it really does need to stop. There is no war on Christmas. Let people put up posters expressing their beliefs, and let people celebrate the season however they choose. I, for one, will be indulging my Christmas tradition of watching The Muppet Christmas Carol.

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad