Companies spend millions of dollars on diversity training to help workers become more sensitive to each other’s cultures, traditions, and practices. School boards now regularly struggle with the tension between wanting to celebrate the holiday season and not wanting to offend any of their students’ families. Communities debate what is and is not a religious display on town commons and in town buildings.
But the malls are full of Christmas decorations, our town streetlights are festooned with red and green ribbons and wreaths, and the local ratio station plays (mostly bad) Christmas music 24/7. (I’ve changed the setting on my car radio. Another rendition of Dominic the Donkey or Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer will send me over the edge.) Washington D.C. and New York City light up giant Christmas trees. (Has anyone ever seen a giant Kwanzaa kinara display?). And Eid al-Adha celebrations are confined to Middle Eastern neighborhoods. A visitor from another planet would have no idea that any other holiday besides a secularized Christmas is celebrated in December in America. What goes on?
As a culture, we’re in transition. As with any transition, there is a tension between what was and what is. Nostalgia for a simpler time when the dominant culture was thought to be truly dominant, coupled with merchandisers’ need for Christmas to remain a money-making machine, competes with our national effort to be a truly diverse society. In less than two generations, America has become more multicultural and more multireligious than ever before. December celebrations haven’t caught up to our new reality.
We want our children to respect other traditions. We want to prepare them for an America that is a rich mix of cultures and religions. We want them to feel a part of the global community. We may not be able to enlighten our local retailers but we can model inclusiveness and celebrate diversity within our own families and homes. By showing them that others celebrate the season differently, we raise our children to appreciate differences instead of fearing them. By supporting efforts in our communities for all of its members to be visible, we help move our country towards a culture of understanding.
Children (and most adults) like any excuse for a party. Introduce your kids to some of these holidays by making an event out of them. Cook some of the foods. Read a children’s book about them. If you know someone who celebrates a holiday different from your own, invite them over for an afternoon or evening of sharing stories about holiday memories.
A December Festival Primer
There are hundreds of religious and ethnic groups in our world, each with their own beliefs and traditions. Here’s a summary of holidays that occur during December for some of the larger groups.
Nov. 27: Eid al-Adha (or the Feast of Sacrifice) begins on the evening of November 26 and lasts for four days. It is a festival celebrated by Muslims to remember the story of Ibrahim (Abraham). Allah tested Ibrahim by commanding him to kill his son Ishmael (Isaac). As he was about to carry out the command, Allah intervened and rewarded him for his obedience by telling him to sacrifice a lamb instead. Depending on the laws of a country, Muslims who can afford to do so either sacrifice an animal or arrange for one to be sacrificed at a slaughterhouse. The meat is then divided among family, friends, and the poor. People dress in their best and visit relatives and friends. Children may receive gifts and special prayers are said. The focus of the holiday is the remembrance of one’s duty to obey Allah. Often people sacrifice or give up something that is important to them for the duration of the festival.
Dec. 21: Winter Solstice In many countries, especially those in the Northern hemisphere where the winters are harsh, native peoples noted and celebrated the day that marked the beginning of the return of the light with pagan festivals and feast days. The winter solstice currently is celebrated in many different ways with some groups doing their best to research ancient traditions of their country or region and others creating their own. Common to most is a celebration of the natural cycles of the earth with gatherings of family and friends, feasting, story telling and gift-giving. Many of the symbols of Hanukkah and Christmas such as candles (on a branch or in a tree), mistletoe, ornaments, and even an elf with magical reindeer who brings gifts, are handed down from the ancient pagan traditions.
December 11: Hanukkah, the Jewish festival that is celebrated for eight days and nights, begins at sundown on December 11. Because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar year, the date changes from year to year but it usually occurs sometime in December. It celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in about 165 B.C. The Maccabees had reclaimed the temple after years of fighting oppression by the Greek-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. Purified oil that was sufficient to light the temple light only for a day instead lasted for eight. Each evening an additional candle is lit on the Menorah (a candelabra with 9 candles – 1 for each day of the miracle, plus the “Shamash” candle in the center that is used to light the others.) The special food that most families love is potato latkes (pancakes). There are games and songs associated with the holiday. In some families, children receive a small gift each night of the holiday. In others, there is an evening of gift-giving. In still others, the focus is on the family sharing time and a meal. Although a minor holiday in the Jewish religion, it is a mid-winter celebration that brings families together. Blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, often are associated with the holiday.
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.