Nobody is offended by “Merry Christmas”

There are few things as annoying as political correctness gone mad. But there are few things that people seem to enjoy so much as alleged stories of the same.

It’s Christmas Day. It’s a day about family and food, small children being amazed and delighted with the presents that Father Christmas has brought, and if you’re a Christian it’s about the birth of Jesus Christ, the saviour of mankind.

It’s a big deal in the West. I’ll warrant that much of the rest of the world knows about it too.

And of course, being Christmas, everyone supports the ideas of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

One characteristic of the days before Christmas, though, is the inevitable suggestion that someone, somewhere, is offended by being wished a Merry Christmas.

The heading of this post is a bit of a giveaway. Nobody gets offended.

Not Jews, not Muslims, not atheists, not Hindus. I don’t think I know any Buddhists or Taoists, nor the adherents of a thousand other smaller religions, but I’ll venture to say that they’re not offended either.

Twenty one years ago in Birmingham in England, the council decided to advertise all of the city’s winter festive activities under the umbrella term “Winterval.” The term was a made-up conflation of “winter” and “festival.” That included Diwali and New Year’s Eve and of course the main event, Christmas.

Someone misinterpreted Birmingham’s intentions and decided that they were trying to “hide” Christmas.

Likewise, in the United States, because the Jewish festival of Hanukkah falls close to Christmas, I believe that some retailers use the catch-all term “Happy Holidays.” And again, people object because they think an attempt is being made to hide Christmas.

From these things, and possibly also from the scourge of modern Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, there seems to have arisen a general belief that someone, somewhere out there, is offended by Christmas and by being wished a Merry Christmas.

I repeat: it isn’t so. Nobody gets offended.

The Melancholy Roman

Hanging Rock

Part of the rock formation

The weird thing about Hanging Rock is that there’s nothing unusual about it at all. It’s a rock formation surrounded by trees about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. If you drive in the area you’ll discover a bunch of agricultural properties around it. Next to the formation is a racecourse and in the midst of the formation itself is what looks like a tumbled granite boulder perched atop two other boulders. This has a gap beneath it that you can walk through and is allegedly the hanging rock for which the whole thing is named.

But that’s not where its fame comes from. No, that comes from the book.

Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock was published in 1967. I’ve never read it but it’s about the mysterious disappearance of four people at Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day, 1900. The book leaves unresolved the question of what happened to them.

The timing of the book’s publication in 1967 is significant. The Beaumont children had vanished from Glenelg Beach in Adelaide on Australia Day the year before. Harold Holt, the prime minister, vanished while swimming off Cheviot Beach in Victoria on 17 December 1967. The style of Lindsay’s book implies that it, too, was about something that had really happened.

It’s actually a complete work of fiction. The prime minister, Harold Holt, really did disappear in December 1967. The three Beaumont children really did disappear in January 1966. Those are both well documented events. The Hanging Rock disappearances, on the other hand, simply never happened. The book is not a true story and nor is it based on a true story in any way. Nobody disappeared at Hanging Rock.

Lindsay always refused to confirm this, however, having an eye for the sales that publicity helped generate. The movie of the book in 1975 only reinforced the suggestion that something had happened. The invention of the world wide web was still decades away and it wasn’t as easy as it would be nowadays to establish the truth.

To give some context, when The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999 it took weeks before journalists were able to confirm that the footage was fake and that nothing had happened to the actors involved. Joan Lindsay was using a similar marketing strategy but decades earlier.

The film of Picnic at Hanging Rock is overly long and not very good. But there are some dreamlike sequences and it conveys an overall sense of mystery. The most famous scene shows one of the girls, Miranda, leading two others to disappear with her into the rock formation while another girl panics and screams Miranda’s name.

The consequence of the movie and the book is that Hanging Rock is a tourist attraction. I doubt anybody but locals and racegoers would have heard of it had Lindsay chosen a different setting for her novel. Lindsay knew of it because she went to school nearby.

As for the dangers depicted in the film, the formation isn’t particularly difficult to climb and the path is marked most of the way to the top. Still, despite its lack of height, the views from the top are good.

The Melancholy Roman