Religion, nationalism make festivals divisive

By Mike Cormack Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/4 20:48:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Festivals famously cause arguments. Close proximity to the family, high hopes for activities which aren't met, crushed feelings of independence on the return to the parental nest - all mix to a potent degree, making family holidays a tinderbox of potential conflict. But arguments during holidays are proving less potent than arguments about their nature and naming.

The US has seen a culture war around Christmas, with many claiming to be concerned about maintaining the holiday's religious roots. And in China, the most recent Spring Festival and Chinese New Year brought out similar spats over what people think are the right way to celebrate holidays.

In America, "the war on Christmas," as it's called, is supposedly the drive to secularize Christmas, by replacing the greeting "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays" and removing the Christian symbols of the festival, such as Jesus in the manger, the Archangel Gabriel and Mother Mary, lest they offend people of other faiths. Opposing this, some Americans declare - through social media, T-shirts and bumper stickers - "I say Merry Christmas!" Sometimes this is followed by affirmations of bacon consumption, gun ownership and support for the military - and "If this offends you I don't care!" Naturally President Donald Trump jumped into a cultural war from which he could benefit: He regularly claimed during his presidential campaign that he would end "the war on Christmas" and, following the passage of his tax bill last December, said that "We can say Merry Christmas again!"

Meanwhile, several Chinese celebrities found themselves in social media spats regarding Chinese New Year. Both Taiwanese actor Eddie Peng Yu-yen and supermodel Liu Wen referred to "Lunar New Year" in Instagram posts and were deluged with criticism from people saying they should have said "Chinese New Year." Similarly actress Reyizha Alimjan, a Muslim and ethnic Kazakh born in Beijing, posted on Sina Weibo that she didn't celebrate the festival, saying, "To be honest, I don't celebrate this festival. But I still miss my family." This led to a similar online furore, with furious responses of "ethnic separatism" and "Muslim extremism" to her post. She had to delete everything on her account.

A surface reading is that it would be right to remember that festivals are wholly constructed social rituals. Christmas may be founded on the birth of Christ, but its modern celebration owes more to Charles Dickens and the Victorians than any form of long-standing practice. Many ancient aspects have faded - ivy, holly, carol singing, church attendance - and modern forms have come to the fore: wrapping paper, crackers, paper hats, turkey, Santa in red. Festivals are flexible. They move with the times. There is no essential festival which we should always be recreating, no past we must conform to. There is therefore no need to get concerned about changes or differences to festivals. Nor should there be undue concern at varieties of festive expressions. Republican voters should consider that it was president Dwight Eisenhower who introduced the generic term "Season's Greetings" to the White House card in the 1950s. Chinese concerns over the naming of its traditional year similarly feel pointlessly overheated, forgetting that the year is calculated on the Chinese lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian, collapsing the difference between them.

But perhaps a better reading of these episodes is that both skirmishes are proxy political conflicts. Anxiety over the de-Christianizing of Christmas demonstrates not so much fear of secularization, but rather worries over rising levels of other religions, particularly Islam. "The war on Christmas" is thus conducted in extreme bad faith: No-one is calling for the US to renounce or diminish Christmas and a greeting like "Happy Holidays!" which includes Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice, surely harms no one. What's really happening is that political activities are nowadays most often stirred by perceived victimhood or unfairness. It's easiest to stir up resentment against others if they're portrayed as taking away what is dearest to us. And what childish memory is more to dear to us than Christmas?

The outcry over "lunar" versus "Chinese" new year likewise betrays political anxieties. But these are not so much aggravated by perceived victimhood as aggressive, expansive nationalism. The lunar new year is celebrated not just in China, but in Korea, Vietnam and Mongolia too, based on the Chinese lunisolar calendar. But it is not now just a domestic celebration. It's celebrated the world over, from Vancouver to Auckland, and world leaders now regularly pay their respects during it.

Chinese New Year is becoming a global celebration, and evidently some Chinese want to ensure their nation's ownership of it. The comments on Liu Wen's Instagram post made the nationalistic tenor clear: "Do you still know that you are Chinese?" "Are you trying to appease the Koreans and the Vietnamese now?" "If you want to become Vietnamese so badly, get out and don't come back to China," and "Are you kneeling down to the South Koreans? It should be Chinese New Year!" They are, as it were, planting a Chinese flag on the festival.

All of which further suggests that festivals, like so much else in life, are becoming part of the playing field in the contestation of identity politics. This in turn undermines the very idea of a celebration bringing people together. So, in being used to define who you are and what you do, festivals might hence be causing more arguments than ever.

The author has been a freelance journalist in China since 2008. Follow him on Twitter at @bucketoftongues.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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