Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy recently caused a stir when she said she agreed with Auckland Regional Migrants Services's policy of avoiding the word Christmas, by referring to "Happy holidays" and "Season's greetings", so non-Christians wouldn't feel excluded. Here Bishop Ross Bay, the Anglican Bishop of Auckland, and Dame Susan debate the issue.

Bishop Ross Bay: In defence of Christmas

In an attempt to assist inclusive enculturation of migrants, the Auckland Regional Migrant Services thinks it best to avoid the word Christmas, and instead use "Happy holidays" and "Season's greetings". People can enjoy a "festive" lunch on the "seasonal" day. The intention is to avoid excluding non-Christians and those who don't celebrate Christmas.

All very laudable in a way, though an interesting thing is that non-Christians are some of the biggest celebrators of Christmas and have already reinterpreted it to suit a secular society. Visit any shopping centre and the signs are there.

Christmas is part of us and our culture, however different people understand it.

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The risk of expunging the word Christmas from migrants' vocabulary is that there is a reduction in their opportunity to adapt to the culture of their new home, and the process of establishing their own cultural identity within it.

If we cannot weave the various aspects of the faiths and cultures of the different peoples of our nation into our common life, then there will be no colour or flavour to who we are.

What I am saying is that we need to address our fear of difference. That is especially so in a world currently wracked with fear and suspicion as a result of the current terrorist attacks.

Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addressed this kind of fear in his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference, aptly subtitled "How to avoid the clash of civilisations".

Sacks' thesis is that we misunderstand inter-religious encounter when we seek to establish what we have in common. We imagine that to find common ground will reassure us that, at heart, we are all the same.

Rather we need to identify the differences that mark us out as being distinct. We do not have to accept those things as true for ourselves, or assent to them but can offer them dignity, recognising we carry the same image of God within ourselves, and that human difference ought not to be the cause of hatred or fear.

Sacks goes as far as to say this: "The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God's image in someone who is not in my image? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his."

This undoubtedly raises a challenge for the communication of faith in a society where organised religion no longer dominates our social landscape but it is a challenge for all people who share life in this nation as we recognise and face our differences honestly, and seek to make room for one another.

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Dame Susan Devoy: I'm not the Grinch

One look at my recent emails and messages and you could be forgiven for thinking I'm the Grinch who stole Christmas. I have no plans to ban Christmas, not that I could, and it is not part of my job to tell anyone how to celebrate Christmas.

I've never said we or anyone else should ban Christmas and I never would. What I did say is it's up to everyday New Zealanders to decide how to observe Christmas. Kiwis hate being told what to do. I wouldn't welcome anyone telling me what to do on December 25.

New Zealand will still shut down on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and again on Good Friday and Easter Sunday in a few months' time. This is because the overwhelming majority of Kiwis are Christians. This is how we do things and it's unlikely to change soon.

We celebrate Christmas in a huge variety of ways. Some go tramping, others head to their marae and many, like us, gather at someone's home for a few days. And that's the thing - how we choose to celebrate Christmas must be up to New Zealanders to decide.

The Auckland Regional Migrants Services Trust prefers to use non-religious, secular language when inviting communities to attend some of their events because they don't want non-Christians to think they aren't included in the invitation. Their choice of language is about inclusion, not exclusion.

I know some businesses and government departments have chosen to also use secular and non-religious language for their end-of-year festivities and that's okay: it's up to all of us to decide what works for us.

I was brought up in the Catholic Church and Christmas for us will always be based on those beliefs and customs passed down through my family. This is what works for us.

Peace on earth is a well-known Christmas message and when it comes to peace on earth, New Zealand is right up there.

Once again this year's Global Peace Index announced that we live in one of the most peaceful nations on earth. As well as one of the most peaceful nations, New Zealand is one of the most ethnically diverse nations on the planet. Whether we pass our peaceful reputation on to our children is up to us.

Yesterday marked White Ribbon Day. We face 200 domestic violence incidents a day. Our children are dying. This is a human rights issue to get angry about, and something I would gladly ban, if only I could.

Merry Christmas and let there be peace on earth.

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