Now is the Winterval of our discontent (redux)

I wrote this on Sunday 2nd November and I’m buggered if I’m going to let a silly hosting problem stop me from publishing it again. Big thanks to Jon Bounds, who found the original in his Google reader archive. Lesson learned for me: back up, back up, back up…

Reading today’s Observer, I became worried for a moment that we’d had the wrong paper delivered. Christmas is axed in Oxford, read the outraged headline.

“Council leaders in Oxford have decided to ban the word Christmas from this year’s festive celebrations to make them more ‘inclusive’,” the article says. “But the decision to rename the series of events the ‘Winter Light Festival’ has been criticised by religious leaders and locals said it was ‘ludicrous’.”

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s exactly the same kind of moral outrage that put Birmingham into the spotlight ten years ago, when our Council decided to brand three months of winter celebrations and events – from bonfire night to New Year’s Eve – into one marketable festival: Winterval. Despite lights across New Street reading “Happy Christmas” and council-sponsored carol services taking place across the city, the tabloid press had a field day. The Bishop of Birmingham was quoted as saying Winterval was “a way of not talking about Christmas” and more than one commentator told us it was “political correctness gone mad”.

But no-one “banned the word Christmas” then, and no-one’s banning it now. In the very same Observer article that says Oxford’s Winter Light festival has “axed Christmas”, writer Rowan Walker quotes Tei Williams, press officer for the Winter Light Festival, as saying: “Winter Light … is a whole festival spanning two months. Within that will be Christmas carol services.” So, no-one’s axed anything, then.

I do find it strange that the Observer, of all papers, has jumped on this bandwagon, especially when these “anti-Christmas” fallacies are now so widely disproved. Even the Guardian – the Observer’s sister paper – published a feature two years ago explaining that the War on Christmas is no more than a myth.

But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. This week, in an article that called bloggers like me “winterval deniers”(!), The Birmingham Post’s Paul Dale says it’s all about perception. Whether these councils are right or wrong to use catch-all names like Winterval or Winter Light, it’s the fact that people perceive them as anti-Christmas that matters, he says.

He might have had a point if he hadn’t perpetuated the myth himself in the first paragraph. “Ten years after Birmingham City Council invited ridicule by airbrushing out the word Christmas from its official celebrations…” he wrote, ignoring the fact that this just isn’t true.

Paul goes on to admit that “the best explanation was that winterval represented a collective name for the events held from mid-November through to the first week in January” – this is true – but then continues, “to most of us, that’s Christmas.”

Is it? To me, the fireworks that we hear every night at the end of October and beginning of November are to do with Diwali and Bonfire night, not Christmas. The week after Christmas, going into January, is New Year’s Eve and the start of the new year… not Christmas. If the council wants to bring all of these events together and give them a catch-all name for marketing purposes, then “Christmas” is really not the right one.

(And besides, as Claire White was so right to point out to the Post, “you say Christmas is the right word for a season that lasts for weeks – and yet you, the mainstream media, moan every year about Christmas being too long or starting too early…”!)

So, is the Observer article just the beginning? Will the Winter Light Festival ensure that Oxford too will become a byword for anti-Christmas political correctness, or is Birmingham alone in having this nonsense thrown at us year after year? Put it his way: I’m pretty sure that in ten years time, Oxford will still be famous for its dreaming spires.

2 thoughts on “Now is the Winterval of our discontent (redux)

  1. These types of stories just make me so depressed. There are times when I LOATHE the media in this country and the idiot public who laps it all up so readily.

  2. Birmingham should celebrate “Winterval”
    By Michael Chubb

    Google Winterval and you get nearly 18,000 results. Investigate further and you have an amazing array of personal comments from pukka boardsheets to off the wall blog sites to Birmingham’s own Mail, “Christmas has been rebranded Winterval”.

    Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian at the time, (headline, “The Phony War on Christmas” ) undertook extensive reportage and found that “There’s only one problem with the PC campaign against Christmas- it’s pure nonesense”.
    He goes on;
    “Perhaps the most notorious of the anti-Christmas rebrandings is Winterval, in Birmingham, According to an official statement from the Council, Winterval – which ran in 1997 and 1998, and never since – was a promotional campaign to drive business into Birmingham’s newly regenerated town centre. It began in early November and finished in January. During the part of that period traditionally celebrated as Christmas, “there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas”.
    None of that, though, was enough to prevent a protest movement at the time, whose members included the then Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, as well as two members of UB40”.
    Burkeman speaking to Julian Bond of the Christian Muslim Forum when asked about the de-Christianisation of Christmas, Bond admitted that evidence was hard to come by and further he said “You know, we were in Birmingham for a meeting the other day, and there’s a big Merry Christmas banner in the middle of New Street.” So is anybody at all trying to abolish Christmas this year? “I haven’t come across any examples of anyone doing it this year,” he replies. “No”.
    I think it is now time to put my head above the parapet and declare why I have been asked to write this article . Pretty simple really, I was the one that coined the term “Winterval”
    I was head of events for Birmingham, responsible for over 400 events a year from St. Georges Day to Fireworks Fantasia, international Street festivals to… yes Christmas.
    As an events division (the largest in the UK at that time) we were always seeking to improve the service to the Birmingham community and whilst we aided specific communities to develop their own festivals, Diwali, Chinese New Year, St. Patricks Day to Gay Pride (mainly because we had the professional expertise to help those communities realise their ambitions) our remit extended to all festivals and events. All were to be totally inclusive and the majority free or at an affordable price.
    In my first Christmas, Birmingham received national coverage, Blue Peter launched the Christmas Lights Switch on and Eamonn Holmes “How do they do that” show closed their Christmas edition with a burst of flame projectors on the town Hall.. “and a happy Christmas from Birmingham!”.
    As Head of Events with such a professional team behind me, it was always important to deliver bigger and better events more often than not though with reduced funding.
    The imperative for delivering these events was to maximize the quality of the experience, increase our audiences and deliver Birmingham as a forward thinking energetic city. Promoting the events to a local, national and international audience and thereby gaining recognition was vital to the Councils overall aims and objectives. Recognition of a city’s innovative approach reflects on all. To businesses considering relocating, to increasing bed nights to the hotel sector, to marketing the city’s retail offer all these are factored in.
    So to Winterval. The events division were charged with putting on 41 days and nights of activity that ranged from BBC Children in Need, to the Christmas Lights Switch On, to a Frankfurt Christmas Market, outdoor ice rink, Aston Hall by Candlelight, Diwali (Festival of lights) shopping at Christmas, World class theatre and arts and of course New Years Eve with its massive 100,000 audience. With funding from sponsors and with very many more events to market, the decision was to bring all the events together under a generic banner under which they could all sit. Whilst marketed as Winterval, each event had its own marketing plan but clearly it was Winterval that drove the initiative.
    Leaving Birmingham (to another job!)I started to notice the ridiculous banshee that pervaded Winterval. Through Wickapedia I contacted Polly Toynbee of the Guardian re the (now) long running Winterval saga..she suggested that as the originator of Winterval I should stand up and put my name to it.
    So as originator, what are my thoughts?.
    Rather like Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian..its nonsense and I feel like many stories around the festive season when news is fairly thin on the ground the media seek out what they term “Silly season stories”.
    Political correctness was never the reasoning behind Winterval, but yes it was intended to be inclusive (which is no bad thing to my mind) and a brand to which other initiatives could be developed as part of The Winterval offer in order to sell the City at a time when all cities are competing against each other for the seasonal trade.
    Each part of Winterval had its own marketing plan..the same as ,for instance, the marketing of a brand whose sub brands (ie chocolate)have their own niche marketing.
    I do believe that those who took umbrage did it for their own reasons, to peddle their own message and of course, everybody got on to their own hobby horses in the process.
    I am amazed that no-one could see the simplicity of The Winterval brand, but read into it what they wanted; to further and give voice to their own aspirations/prejudices.

    It is time for Birmingham to be proud of Winterval and stand up for an innovative initiative that befits an outward looking city.

    Maybe, perhaps , the opportunists will now put away their righteous indignation and reflect on what the city has lost..a unique festival that celebrates what Birmingham is world famous for..a city that shares and celebrates with a sense of style and adventure.

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