Mike Chubb is the most influential cultural figure you’ve never heard of. Every year at this time we debate or deride his work. Every year, his legacy receives vast acres of newsprint.
That’s because Mike Chubb is the man who invented Winterval. This unassuming council administrator is the man who stole Christmas.
That last sentence is, of course, nonsense. Winterval, a portmanteau of “winter” and “festival” that Chubb coined while head of events at Birmingham City Council, was a programme of festivities scheduled for November and December 1997. They included Diwali, the festival of light celebrated by several south Asian religions; but also New Year’s Eve, the Christmas lights switch on and a Christmas market. The following year the programme was extended to include Halloween, Bonfire Night, Ramadan, Hanukkah, Eid and Chinese New Year.
Winterval was never intended as an attempt to downplay Christmas (which, spoilers, is going to feature pretty heavily in anything that happens in this country from about October onwards), and both Christmas iconography and the literal word “Christmas” featured prominently in all marketing materials. It was just a branding exercise, a way of grouping a bunch of obviously disparate things together, like some kind of festive Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. But then a bishop and some tabloid journalists spotted an opportunity to do exactly what they’d been itching to do anyway, and two decades later my father, who lived in Birmingham and read the Daily Mail, would still insist his council had tried to rename Christmas to avoid offending brown people.
Birmingham hasn’t used the term Winterval since January 1999 – ironically, best one can tell, so as not to offend the Church – but it still persists as the go-to example of the British war on Christmas. In some ways, there’s something reassuring about this: like the leaves falling from the trees or over-30s on Twitter bragging about their A-level results, these rituals give an order and shape to the year.
And lo, it came to pass that on the 12th day of December my true love gave to me: a provocateur from Belize. “I shall continue to wish everyone a happy Christmas and will not change this to a happy festive season,” the pollster and former Tory deputy chair Michael Ashcroft tweeted earlier this week. My first thought was that someone had told him they certainly wouldn’t be wishing him a happy Christmas, possibly because of his famous use of the non-dom tax status, and that he’d simply misunderstood, but no: it came from the inclusive language guidance from the University of Brighton, which made the self-evidently accurate point that referring to the “Christmas closure period” as the “winter closure period” might feel more inclusive to students who don’t celebrate Christmas.
Nothing has been banned; nobody had exhorted any Tory peers not to wish anybody anything. Those six words were it, in a nine-page document. But of course this stuff is never actually about anything being banned: it’s about stoking grievance and division, and making the other side waste time and energy on stuff like this.
Oh well, at least we’re getting a lovely festive break soon, where we can raise a glass to traditional objects of veneration like George Michael, Mike Chubb and whoever it was that wrote the University of Brighton’s inclusive language guidance. And if you do want to celebrate Winterval, get yourself to Ireland. They hold it in Waterford every year.