12/23/2011 02:56 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2012

The Zen of Christmas

As someone who has spent a lot of time in other countries, I often wonder: how is Christmas different from the holidays (and holy days) of other cultures? In my professional life I am exposed to the celebrations of other lands, which are mostly religious ones. When I lived in Nepal I was privileged to take part in its biggest feast day, Dashain, which celebrates the victory of the gods over demons -- of good over evil. Although I was told many times to "think of it as Christmas for Nepalis," it was not like any Christmas I had ever experienced. A central feature is ritual animal sacrifice, and I watched in fascination as the head of a young water buffalo was fully detached with one ferocious whack of a large khukri (knife). Not like Christmas, no. True, a key element of Christianity involves sacrifice, but -- this was too Old Testament for me.

I've often been with people of other faiths who celebrate their religious holidays -- Hanukkah, Ramadan and Eid, various New Years. Most of the main elements are similar: take a break from work, for several days. Fast, and then feast with your loved ones, worship your god (or gods) however you normally do, recount the origins of the event, sing together, buy new things if you can, and give thanks. There is a comfort to these rituals that surpasses the specific "reasons" for their practice.

Christmas is important for the roughly one-third of the world that professes to be Christian. The religion has been a major force for good in the world when it has adhered to its basic principles, and didn't get into practices like empire building or torturing heretics. Christianity produced "the Golden Rule" -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you. How much better off this world would be if that were the guideline for human interactions. No wars, no poverty, no need to Occupy Wall Street. Regardless of how fully or well it is practiced, this admonition to Christians is essentially what it's all about, the unique meaning of Christmas.
Or so I thought before seeing a compilation of the common central themes of other religions. Here are some of them:

Hindu: "This is the sum of duty: do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain." -- The Mahabharata 5:1517
Jewish: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary." -- The Talmud, Shabbat 31a
Buddhist: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." -- Udana-Varga 5:18
Christian: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." -- The Gospel of Matthew 7:12
Muslim: "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself." -- Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths.

So there it is: Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims -- all of the world's major religions exhort believers to the same behavior: Be kind to one another. Christmas is indeed special -- for Christians, a celebration of the earthly birth of the Son of their God, the Christ child. It is a unique celebration of a central belief that is, however, decidedly not unique. In so many cultures it all comes down to this: treat your fellow humans as you would like to be treated.