Every year, the Christmas vs. The Holidays debate is dragged out, dusted off and hung up again. I'd like to propose an alternative way to express a (non-Christian) encounter with Christmas. Let's agree that Christians are the majority but not the only religious culture that influences our popular and public culture. Let's agree that they do have a holiday called Christmas.
Let's help them have it.
If you are Muslim, Atheist, Pagan, Hindu or something else -- in other words, if you are not Christian -- give your Christian colleagues a break this holiday season. Offer to cover shifts, pick up the slack on projects and so on. If most of your family celebrates Christmas and you don't, offer to do the grocery shopping or watch the kids. Think of it as a birthday: to people we care about and coexist with, it's a significant day. It's just not our significant day.
We can embrace our own traditions without setting up a competition: there is enough holiday cheer to go around. When our holidays come around, we can ask our colleagues to cover for us. It's a gentle way to educate and remind people that there are in fact other holidays. Being gentle does not mean being passive or accepting a marginalized status. I'm talking about gentle education because education means teaching, not preaching. And teaching is communication. And communication works a lot better if we speak in reasonable tones and illustrate that learning has some benefit.
Maybe you think that people should just accept diversity without having to be nice about it, but this remains a challenge whether we like it or not. Further, I don't see being nice as something that undermines debate, discourse and civil rights -- but then, I'm from Minnesota. We're renowned for being nice here. We've got our problems, but still manage to communicate effectively.
The idea of helping Christian colleagues, friends and family observe their festivals is something the national team at Hindu American Seva Charities has been discussing. Our mission is to empower Hindu-American communities in seva: social service and community projects to benefit those in need regardless of faith. We explore what forms that service can take, and what parts of Hindu culture and philosophy can be utilized to do some good. We are a diverse and often contentious lot, but like every other religious/ethnic group in our nation, Hindus bring unique perspectives into the conversation that is America.
The passionate debate over "Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays" reminds me of something that seems unrelated, something I learned about being Hindu.
When I lived in India, we did business and were friends with everyone. This was not always easy. Amid frequent inter-religious tensions and violence, my family was sometimes threatened for associating with Muslims or Sikhs. We did it anyway. Our long-time friend and contractor (our house always seemed on the verge of falling down, so we got to know him well) was a devout Muslim. My mother is a Hindu priestess. When he came into our home, she would touch her hand to her head and greet him: Asalm allikum, peace be upon up you. He would join his hands in front of his chest and give her a little bow: Namaste, the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you. Namaste is the traditional Hindu greeting; Asalamu alikum is the Muslim. Secure in their own faith, they gave each other's faith back in greeting. As a gift.
This is how I learned to be Hindu. It's a lesson I apply to being American, and I understand it's not for everyone. But it is more than being nice. This is the power of everyday faith: faith in each other. This is teaching and learning on equal ground.
Helping Christians have a joyous festival does not mean marginalizing our own holidays, offering a bribe to a dominant group or producing exorbitant gifts to prove our success to an intimidating family member. It's about being ourselves and sharing the best of ourselves. For many Christians, that's what Christmas is about, and we can learn from them. We can find the meaning in each others' traditions without coercion or conversion. The divinity in me can recognize the divinity within you. There is nothing more powerful than wishing each other peace.
So if you don't celebrate Christmas, celebrate holiday giving instead.