Thomas the Tank Engine has been a beloved character for decades. But now, the fictional steam locomotive is finding himself at the center of the ongoing debate surrounding political correctness and faith in the public square.
With Christmas only months away, it seems it's never too early to debate the presence of religious references in children's cartoons.
To sum up this Christmas controversy in simple terms: critics are accusing the team behind Thomas the Tank Engine of falling prey to political correctness by purposefully removing references to Christmas in the company's latest DVD, "Little Engines, Big Days Out" (the episode is called "Keeping Up With James").
Christmas, a holiday that is celebrated around the world -- one that is obviously very much rooted in and centered upon the birth of Jesus Christ -- has been written out of Thomas' latest adventure.
Apparently, the latest installment features a story about "winter holidays." In it, Christmas trees have been axed down, but rather than calling them by their obvious name, the makers chose to refer to them as decorated trees. And, as the Daily Mail highlights, presents that are wrapped with brilliant paper are delivered to a "holiday party." The word "Christmas," critics say, is avoided throughout the video.
See, all of the trains in the episode are anxious to become the special "presents train" that gets to deliver all of the gifts to the "holiday party." The presents train is apparently "the jolliest train of the year." There are even images of children singing carols and decorating a "special" (i.e. Christmas) tree. They're putting "colorful decorations" (i.e. Christmas ornaments) on it. I think you get the idea.
Below, watch a clip from the episode and see some of these references for yourself:
Now, here's the ultimate irony. Thomas was created by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry (yes, reverend). Awdry was an English clergyman who created Thomas and his friends to entertain his son when he was ill. Random House has more background information on how the popular character came to be:
The Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who passed away in 1997, was a retired Anglican clergyman. His father, Vere was also a clergyman and had the same passionate interest in railways. As a little boy in his father's vicarage in Box, Wiltshire, Wilbert would be in bed at night and listen to the trains of the Great Western Railway running along the main line from Paddington to Bristol within 200 yards of the house. He would imagine all the engines talking to one another and invented characters for them all.
Critics, of course, are less than pleased with the omission. England's former Government Minister Ann Widdecombe (who converted to Roman Catholicism) had the following to say in response to the omission:
"The shops will be stocking Christmas gifts, the television will be advertising presents and people will be talking about it, so the idea that children won’t hear about it is ludicrous.
It is another example of the politically correct brigade trying to airbrush Christmas out of our lives because they fear they might upset non-Christians, which is nonsense."
According to The Scotsman, John Midgley, the co-founder of the Campaign Against Political Correctness, said, "This is another example of the attempt to write Christmas out of something which is so popular with families." He continued, "It's our experience that people from other religions do not want to eradicate Christmas from holidays or write it out of our everyday language."
The U.K.'s Christian institute published comments from the Rev. Mark Johnstone, who works for the Church of Scotland. “There is a great Christian tradition in Scotland and Christmas is important as it celebrates the birth of Christ," Johnstone said.
Hit entertainment, though, the company that now owns Thomas the Tank Engine and that created the DVD, claims that the film was made "some time ago:"
"It was not a seasonal release specifically aimed at a Christmas audience, but we do put out seasonal releases that have Christmas in the title. Last year we had Christmas Express and next year we are planning another Christmas title."
Regardless of whether the company has, indeed, made other Christmas films, the references to the holiday in the episode (which was created years ago but just now seems to be making headlines) certainly create confusion. Furthermore, they cause one to wonder why a story would be centered upon all of the elements that comprise Christmas without actually using the proper words to describe these tenets.