Santa Claus and Girl Guides of Canada part ways

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Santa Claus isn’t a religious symbol. He is the jolly, red-clad fellow who lumbers down chimneys to distribute gifts to children. He arguably has more to do with commercialism than deity.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 30, 2023.

OTTAWA—Santa Claus and the Girl Guides have parted ways in Canada.

A news item last week revealed that a guiding inclusivity policy prohibits the girls from joining any Santa Claus parade across the country.

Some Canadians don’t believe in Christmas, linked as it is to Christianity.

But Santa Claus isn’t even a religious symbol. He is the jolly, red-clad fellow who lumbers down our chimneys to distribute gifts to children.

One could argue that as Christmas bells start ringing at the end of October, Santa has more to do with commercialism than deity.

Bah, humbug!

Apparently, Santa is so associated with Christianity that a parade in his honour is disrespectful of diversity.

According to the statement issued by the guides: “Guiding is not affiliated with, nor privileges any religion or faith-based beliefs, behaviours and traditions … moving from practices that have their roots in religion or are religious allows us to remain true to our values and work toward serving all girls.”

According to news reports, the inclusivity guidelines propose that instead of celebrating Christmas, guides should focus on the change of seasons which emanates from nature.

One could argue that the Santa Claus parade is not a religious event, but a secular gathering to promote the commercial gift-giving that usually accompanies the holiday.

And many non-religious people celebrate the story behind Santa Claus.

The jolly old man coming down a chimney and towed around the world by reindeers to distribute gifts to all good children is not an allegory for the birth of Jesus Christ.

It is, rather, a tale woven over the centuries, stemming from a pagan belief that spirits travelled the sky in midwinter.

There are several different interpretations about the origins of old St. Nicholas, but none are tied directly to the event of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

The St. Nick appellation dates back to the 4th century to a bishop who was very generous in helping the poor. He was ultimately elevated to sainthood, hence the moniker St. Nick.

Surely, the message of reaching out and gift-giving across the world is something sorely needed at the moment.

I was a Girl Guide myself, and very much appreciate the life lessons they imparted.

Friendship and camaraderie was interwoven with the learning of survival skills like how to make a fire with only two matches.

Luckily, I never had to make such a fire, but just knowing that I was prepared to survive in the wilderness was education enough.

The notion that the celebration of a Santa Claus parade breaches the principle of exclusivity is beyond the pale.

I have attended Jewish Sabbath dinners and Muslim feasts to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Never have I felt pressured to join their religions because of my participation.

Exposure to the traditions of multiple faiths helps one to understand the true meaning of diversity.

Diversity does not mean torching your traditions to respect those of another.

On this one, the Girl Guides have it wrong. By their new inclusion measure, one should never attend a celebration of the end of Ramadan, or a Jewish Holy Day.

Inclusion should be about learning from everyone, including a Canadian past which partly finds its roots in Christianity.

Based on Canadian statistics, half of those who take their children to the Santa Claus Parade are not even churchgoers.

Families are celebrating a season where, for once, the focus is on giving to others, and not merely doing for oneself.

Historians can confirm that St. Nick started as a pagan world-flyer, but there can be no argument that the Santa Claus parade has become a secular event focussed on values of giving.

That notion of seasonal charity is not exclusive to Christianity. I have even attended homes of Jewish friends who put up a Christmas tree as a secular celebration.

The Girl Guides are to be congratulated for tackling the issue of inclusion.

But in this case, they are dead wrong. Instead of aligning Santa Claus with the cancel culture, they should be exploring multiple interpretations of religious themes imbedded in our daily lives.

Why not focus on learning from each other, not simply wiping out Canadian traditions that have shaped us?

An understanding of religious headgear for Muslim women and girls could be a great learning experience.

But as that habit derives from the Qur’an, it would also be verboten according to updated Girl Guide inclusivity rules.

Inclusivity should not involve obliterating our past. Instead, it should be about reshaping our future.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.