recently mentioned that even the Pope appears to have been fooled by the Winterval myth, a provocative but completely untrue claim that Birmingham City Council once tried to replace Christmas with a non-religious festival. It's since become a staple of the right-wing tabloid press that likes its readership to think that a toxic combination of political correctness gone mad, elf 'n' safety and Muslims is fueling a war on British traditions. With its emphasis on immigrant scapegoats it's a particularly insidious and spiteful conspiracy theory.
In case you can't remember, the Pontiff declared that "There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none". It's like something you'd read in the pages of the Daily Mail which - thanks to his holiness - it now is.
I mentioned this to an acquaintance - an habitual Daily Mail reader - and pointed out the paper's use of the thoroughly-debunked Winterval. In reply she launched into a passionate defence of the paper's editorial, arguing that the UK is a Christian country and as such it should be allowed to celebrate its Christian heritage. She also expressed outrage that schools are apparently abandoning nativity plays for fear of offending pupils of other faiths. It was a surprisingly strong statement from a person who isn't a regular churchgoer.
And yet I remained unconvinced by the Pope's stance. I genuinely don't see Christmas as a festival under threat; indeed the season is regarded as so important to the economy that the festive retail period is frequently used as a yardstick for measuring national economic performance, which explains why preparations for the big day are made months in advance. It's still only September and I've already seen advent calendars in the shops and Christmas lights up in the centre of Leeds, and soon it will come to dominate our screens and our newspapers. Clearly Christmas is not in danger of extinction any time soon.
But what worries me most about these claims is the idea that 'others' are to blame for something that isn't actually happening. In this article on Daily Mail stablemate The Telegraph it's acknowledged several paragraphs down that any schools refusing to host nativity plays out of fear of causing offence are doing so in spite of the fact that no domestic religious leaders have called for the proscription of celebrations surrounding the birth of Jesus. Yet the article implies early on that it is these groups which are responsible for the abandonment of nativity plays in some of our schools and not the overreaction of the school heads in question, a view which is subsequently bolstered by reader comments suggesting that "if it offends other cultures then perhaps those other cultures should not be here in the first place". The power of the press is thus laid bare for all to see.
If there is any danger to Christmas - which is, I hasten to add, a celebration of what is not an indigenous British religion but rather one exported here from the Middle East - it comes from crass over-commercialisation that seems to get worse with every passing year. It's here that the central Christian story of the birth of Jesus Christ is most likely to be lost amidst a celebration of mass consumerism, gluttony and greed.
This is a situation of our own making. Simply trying to pin the blame on those of different colours and creeds is lazy and self-delusional.