Dec. 25: Christmas is the Christian holiday that is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Many of the traditions that people think of as always having been part of Christmas are actually drawn from the ancient pagan celebrations of many countries. A tree is brought indoors and is lit up with lights. Mistletoe is hung from a doorway. The Christmas elf, Santa Claus, brings children gifts. Those who celebrate it as a religious holiday often attend church either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Families and friends exchange gifts and share a special holiday meal that often includes Christmas cookies. Religious songs, called Christmas carols, as well as children’s songs may be sung. People provide for the poor with community meals and holiday charity drives. Green and red are the colors most often associated with Christmas. Evergreen trees were a reminder to ancient peoples that life thrives even in winter. To Christians it is a symbol of the everlasting life promised by Christ. Red is thought by some to be a reminder of drops of Jesus’ blood since Christians believe that Jesus died for the sins of all.

Dec. 26: Kwanzaa, a seven-day festival that is celebrated from Dec. 26 until Jan. 1, was developed only 42 years ago to remind African-Americans of their African roots. A candelabra called the kinara holds three red and three green candles on each side of a black central candle. Originally chosen by Marcus Garvey, an early 20th century advocate of the Back to Africa movement, these colors have come to symbolize African pride. There is one candle for each of seven principles that is the theme of each evening: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective work and responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. A basket of fruits and vegetables that symbolizes the harvest is usually placed next to the kinara. Each evening, an additional candle is lit and the principle of the day is discussed. Kwanzaa isn’t celebrated in Africa. It’s an American holiday that brings African-American families together to celebrate core values.

Toward becoming a diverse society

The lack of imagination by retailers and a failure of courage in the rest of us have created a December that is marked by red and green decorations everywhere and relentless playing of nonreligious “Christmas” music in our stores. Christmas has been secularized and other traditions largely ignored in order to both drive the economy and protect us all from a difficult conversation about differences. Instead of honoring everybody, the public observance of December holidays honors almost nobody – except those who love to shop or feel pressured to do so. And yet, most of America celebrates some kind of mid-winter festival with gatherings of those dear, feasts, decorations, and gifts. Much of the human community makes a special effort during December to feed the hungry and to help those in need. American society is not a homogenized and sanitized culture, devoid of religion and introspection. Rather, it is struggling with how to become a society that respects differences in customs, religions, and cultures. December confusion is symbolic of that struggle.

Hopefully in the next decade or two songs like Dominic the Donkey will be reserved for the occasional children’s party and we’ll instead find a rich mix of ethnic and religious music on our radios and symbols of all the festivals of light in our buildings and stores. Hopefully we’ll become so comfortable with each other that we’ll be able to truly appreciate what every religion and ethnicity contributes to who we are.

Happy Holidays – all of them.