Anyone who’s followed American politics, or switched to Fox News over the holidays, knows that a full blown war is raging at this very moment: The War On Christmas. On the battlefield, the godless forces of Politically Correct liberals—who want to take Christ out of Christmas and thus destroy the very fabric of American culture—fight the patriotic and pious people over at Fox.
Of course nobody residing the reality-based community has ever encountered this “War on Christmas.” It exists only in the fevered imagination of loudmouths like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, who use it to fill airtime, drum up their ratings and excite the conservative grassroots.
Now, this holiday front of the Culture Wars seems to have spread to Iceland, as the past week has seen an outbreak of moral outrage akin to Tea Party proportions shaking the local media.
The Left-Green Grinch steals Christmas
On Wednesday of last week, Líf Magneudóttir, Reykjavík City Council member for the Left-Greens and chairwoman of the city’s Human Rights Council, raised questions about a planned church visit by a city elementary school during the advent.
She pointed out that since the goal of the visit was to have the children listen to a priest explaining the Christmas holiday, the second most important religious holiday for the Christian church, and undeniably the most important religious holiday for most Christians in Iceland, it seemed to be in breach of city regulation, meant to ensure that schools do not promote or endorse any religion. This is especially important, as Reykjavík has in the past few years rapidly transformed into a multi-cultural city populated by people of different cultures and faiths.
Líf’s criticism of the planned church visit was incredibly un-radical. She was not threatening to censor all religious themes out of the advent celebration at Reykjavík’s schools, nor was she proposing a ban on religiously inspired Christmas songs. She even stressed that there was nothing wrong with schools going on occasional field trips to churches. She only questioned whether it was right for schools to take all of their students every year to visit a church so they could listen to a priest deliver a sort of simplified children’s mass.
The Knights of Christ ride to the rescue
Líf’s criticism set off a firestorm of outrage and anger, as elected officials, bloggers and angry Facebook users rushed to express how disgusted they were with this intolerable attack on Christianity and tradition. God and Country were under attack! And, why would nobody think of the poor children who would be denied their Christmas cheer!
On the floor of Alþingi, Independence Party MP Ásmundur Friðriksson denounced Líf as a member of a “small minority that aims to expel the joy of Christmas” from children’s lives, and encouraged schools to stand their ground and “defend our Christian faith.”
Páll Vilhjálmsson, a Morgunblaðið blogger who specializes in conspiracy theories and nationalist fear-mongering, argued that Líf was engaged in nothing short of “terrorism” and “cultural sabotage.” Rush Limbaugh and Bill O‘Reilly would have been proud.
Others who wanted to offer their two cents tried to cling to the veneer of bourgeois respectability. Ólafur Þ. Stephensen, former editor of both Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið (and current Secretary General of the Icelandic Federation of Trade), dismissed Líf’s criticism as “nonsense,” and argued that parents should not allow a “loud minority to rob our children of a good old tradition which is part of our Christian heritage.”
The leaders of both the conservative and progressive parties in Reykjavík City council jumped on the bandwagon and declared their unwavering support for schools taking their students to church.
Defending a non-existing tradition
While it ranged from crazy and delusional to mere pearl-clutching, the outrage over Líf’s criticism all boiled down to a fundamental point: She was attacking the Christian faith specifically, and the Christmas holidays in general, by undermining the age-old tradition of schools taking their students on church field trips during the advent.
Eliminating this tradition would rob children of Christmas cheer while undermining Christianity and time-honoured Icelandic tradition. The only problem: There is no such tradition. While some schools might have visited a church during the advent at one time or the other, such visits have, historically, been the exception. It is only in the past decade or two that priests have actively begun to seek ways to enter elementary schools to engage in religious education. The reason, of course, is the decline in membership for the National Church, down from over 90% in the 1990s to just over 76% today.
By rising to the defence of these church visits, our brave culture warriors are protecting a tradition that never was.
Moreover, Iceland is a decidedly secular society, with a church attendance among the lowest in Western Europe. According to polls, less than 10% of Icelanders attend church at least once a month and over 40% say they never attend church. That taken into account, the demand that children be made to attend church during school time looks less like a pious gesture, and more like a demand from parents who are too lazy to take their own children to mass, that Iceland’s school system oversee their religious education.
Magnús Sveinn teaches economic history at the University of Bifröst.
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