AN extraordinary article appeared in The Times on Christmas Eve. Its author was Jack Straw, Britain's Foreign Secretary, but it had nothing to do with the situation in Iraq, or relations with the United States, or reform of the United Nations, or the European Union budget, or the Iran problem, or the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia, Uganda and Zimbabwe, or indeed with anything that might normally be considered to come within the remit of the Foreign Secretary. The letter was about Christmas cards and, in particular, with the official Foreign Office card that he had been obliged to sign.
It bore, he wrote, “the anodyne non-Christmas message of Season's Greetings” whereas the one that he sent in his capacity of MP for Blackburn had very properly contained the traditional “Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year”. The substitution of “Season's Greetings” for “Merry Christmas” is, in Mr Straw's opinion, “mad” and he provided the readers of The Times with “ten points for navigation in our society of many religions and none”. The last of these was that “We don't have to drop to any lowest common demoninator of belief or non-belief. There is space for respect and celebration of all religions in society.” I have described Mr Straw's article as extraordinary because someone who has been at the heart of foreign relations for as long as he has should surely have known that “Merry Christmas” or similar biddings are not appropriate in mixed societies. I learnt that during the first Christmas I spent at the United Nations. By using the phrase one runs the risk of appearing to assume that the recipient shares one's own religious beliefs.
In some cases it will be understood as a well-meant greeting and nothing more, but not in all. That is why “Season's Greetings” makes better sense and it astonishes me that Jack Straw does not know this.


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