Nazi bear a cultural boo-boo

Canadian Press, Dec. 29, 2002

Canadian Press
Sunday, December 29 – Online Edition, Posted at 9:38 PM EST

Montreal — A cross-cultural misunderstanding about one of the world’s oldest religious symbols might be at the heart of the mystery that had “Nazi” pandas popping out of Christmas crackers.

Last Friday, a Lachine, Que., manufacturer of the festive crackers was horrified to learn that a northern Alberta couple celebrating Christmas found tiny plastic panda bears with <A HREF="" "javascript:void(0);" onmouseover="return overlib('Click for archived news items on this subject’, CAPTION, ‘Link Info…’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’);” onmouseout=”return nd();”>swastikas on military-style caps in their Christmas crackers.

In the Western world, the swastika is indelibly linked to Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany and the horrors practised by that regime. Martin Walpert — president of Lachine’s Walpert Industries Inc., where crackers are a family tradition and business — was already well aware of this.

But as the businessman’s investigation into the suspected sabotage of his crackers quickly revealed, the Nazis had appropriated the swastika, a symbol still widely used in several major religions, including Buddhism.

In China, where Walperts’ crackers are made, the swastika has become an icon and denotes, among other things, prosperity.

“I’m becoming something of an expert on the swastika,” said Mr. Walpert, who was alerted to the symbol’s wider significance by a Chinese friend.

The tale began when Mr. Walpert’s firm bought a supply of another Chinese icon — the panda bear — to include with jokes and other tiny items in 1,350 boxes of crackers. The pandas Mr. Walpert approved were unadorned, he said.

But if a few swastika-bearing pandas made it onto the production line, Chinese workers probably wouldn’t find anything amiss, Mr. Walpert said.

“They sure as heck know what the Buddhist symbol is and that, in their mind, is not going to be offensive,” Mr. Walpert said.

“What they saw was a panda bear and a [positive] symbol. That’s the innocence of it,” said Mr. Walpert who thinks — and hopes — that no more than 10 swastika-bearing pandas got into the mix.

Nonetheless, Mr. Walpert intends to get to the bottom of the matter and to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“It doesn’t matter that it is a Buddhist symbol. It matters that it is interpreted [in countries such as Canada] as a negative image,” he said.

The Nazi panda controversy suggests that we in the global village can be more attuned to our neighbours, said Laurence Nixon, chairman of the religion department at Montreal’s Dawson College.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, the swastika “has absolutely no connotation of nationalism, socialism, much less anti-Semitism,” Prof. Nixon said.

According to Prof. Nixon and a wide array of solid reference material about religious symbols, the swastika — which appears in both left-handed and right-handed versions, each with different meanings — has had an interesting history.

It has been found in almost every ancient and primitive cult all over the world, turning up among the Hindus, the Celts, the Germanic peoples and in central Asia as well as in pre-Columbus America.

The Encyclopedia Britannica refers to the swastika as the Crux Gammata, a pre-Christian cross composed of four Greek capitals of the letter gamma.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday December 31, 2002.
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