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Sweden tries something new for annual Christmas TV special: a Muslim host

The seven-hour TV show has been a staple of Swedish Christmas festivities for decades. But more than a few eyebrows were raised when Gina Dirawi, a young Muslim woman, was chosen to host it.

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    Lights are draped over a Christmas outdoor market in Stockholm on November 27.
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Sweden is known for its egalitarianism and openness. So as the refugee crisis and immigration flows have thrust Europeans into divisive debates about national identity, the Swedes have chosen a 25-year-old Muslim woman to host a Christmas Eve special on public television.

This is not just any TV program that Gina Dirawi, a Swedish broadcaster of Palestinian descent, will present. Tomorrow, as the world gathers around fireplaces and fir trees, Swedes will crowd around their television sets to tune into a program they’ve been watching since 1959.

The julvard, or Christmas host, serves as emcee for the seven-hour event, much like Dick Clark's hosting of US New Year's Eve coverage. It kicks off at 2:55 p.m. on the 24th, the main day of Christmas celebration in Sweden, with the host introducing the the 1958 Walt Disney Christmas special "Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul" (“Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas”).

It sounds quirky and quaint. But it's always one of the most watched programs of the year, notes Sweden’s official website.

For 30 years, the show's host was Arne Weise, a white male TV broadcaster who became as closely associated with Swedish Christmas as Santa Claus is. In 2002, he retired; since then the host has changed each year. Who exactly will be selected as julvard, to accompany Swedes as they open presents and lay out smorgasbords of pickled herring or beetroot salad, is now a tightly guarded secret that’s bet on and debated around dinner tables.

The announcement always makes a splash. But when a Nov. 20 tweet named Ms. Dirawi, it rippled wider than usual. Some of it was because of her youth – the youngest host ever – but most of it was because of her Muslim background.

“We get criticism every year, but we don’t get criticism like that every year,” says Klara Svensson, the executive producer of the show.

Producers at public broadcaster Sveriges Television (SVT) are unapologetic about their choice. On the contrary, Ms. Svensson says it aligns with a modern nation that embraces minorities.

“Gina is a Muslim but always celebrated Christmas. She really loves Christmas,” says Ms. Svensson. “If you move to a different country or you are a refugee I think you have the right to celebrate whatever you want, whenever you want. If she wants to celebrate Eid and Christmas, that is her right."

Creeping defensiveness about Christmas

Christmas in Europe, with its fairy-tale markets and contagious cheer, has been much less fraught than in the US, where in recent years the “war on Christmas” has arrived with a perennial vengeance. Still the creep of a Christmas culture war is here.

At one school in Milan a headmaster recently moved its annual Christmas concert to January and renamed it a “winter concert” to account for Muslim pupils. Parents reacted angrily and even Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stepped into the ensuing storm. “Christmas is much more important than a headmaster being provocative,” Mr. Renzi said.

In France, five days after the Nov. 13 terrorist attack in Paris, the national Association of Mayors of France recommended that nativity scenes should not be placed outside town halls in line with France’s laws on secularism. A group of mayors angrily reacted, saying that their traditions are being swept away.

Even a certain defensiveness is on display in Sweden.

The Scandinavian country admits more refugees per capita than any other country in Europe and is proud of it. But the voice of the far-right Sweden Democrats, which wants those numbers limited, has grown louder as arrivals have surged, forcing the government to limit its welcome in a policy reversal at the end of November.

Just days earlier, Dirawi was chosen as julvard, sparking a debate about her views on Israel and Jews and her commitment to the roots of Christmas. “A Jew-hating Muslim will lead the celebration of Christmas at the SVT!!!” read a tweet from Ingrid Carlqvist, a firebrand journalist opposed to Sweden’s refugee policies.

'More egalitarian'

While such anger in Sweden captured media attention, it was the positive reactions that prevailed. Online magazine KIT analyzed various reactions on social media and by one count found the positive outweighed the negative by a rate of nine to one.

What’s important, SVT says, is not a person’s religion – or age or gender – but a love for Christmas and its peculiar Swedish rendition. “Gina Dirawi is born and raised in Sweden and knows as much about Swedish traditions as any other Swede,” says Anna Wilborg, the program's press person.

Mats Nilsson, a professor of ethnology at the University of Gothenburg, says SVT may have chosen a Muslim host for Christmas to be “politically correct,” he says, “not to separate any of the different subgroups in Swedish society.”

But it also shows, he adds, that religious affiliation is not that important in Swedish society. “The question of whether you are a Muslim, or Christian, or Jew is not a main business here. Sweden is more egalitarian in that sense.”

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