While visions of sugarplums danced in the heads of Christians this Christmas Eve, what was on the minds of America’s non-Christians? While most of the country pauses to observe this religious and cultural holiday, how do non-Christians spend the day?
The month of December is dominated by the Christmas season. Mariah Carey’s Christmas album goes back into rotation, Starbucks resurrects the Eggnog Latte and the Gap premieres its new holiday jingle (“People all over the world. . .”).
The usual, perhaps more traditional, festivities also occur, such as the roasting of chestnuts and the exchange of partridges in pear trees.
All this can be overwhelming for students who don’t share the Christian reverence for Dec. 25.
One response is to simply reinterpret the day as a secular, cultural holiday. To Ohm Deshpande ’04, a Hindu, his family’s Christmas celebration “has no real significance, just fun.” The Deshpande family enjoys the usual festivities without observing the religious aspects.
The way non-Christians observe Christmas may depend on their degree of religiosity. Jesse Schenendorf ’06 identifies himself as “100 percent Jewish, but I’m agnostic.”
To him, Judaism provides a cultural identity. His family celebrates Christmas as well as Hanukkah, putting up a “Christmas tree / Hanukkah bush.”
A newer tradition for non-Christians has arisen out of the holiday. Many choose to go to movies and eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas day. “The restaurant is always packed with everyone from my synagogue,” said Liz Just ’04.
Members of interfaith families often feel tension during the holiday season when deciding how to observe Christmas. Elliot Baer ’04, whose mother is Jewish and whose father is Presbyterian, said that both Christmas and Hanukkah have become “casual affairs.”
Baer’s mother discourages Christmas decorations in their household, but his parents were able to reach a compromise regarding the Christmas tree. “We usually get small trees, about three to four feet tall,” says Baer. “This year, we had a branch in a pot.”
The celebration of Christmas by non-Christians demonstrates how the holiday has become more cultural than religious. Some Christians and non-Christians believe this secularization is unfortunate. Josh Earn ’04, who is Jewish, argues that people should not ignore the religious foundation of Christmas. “People sense that Christmas isn’t Christian even though Christ is in the title,” he said.
Some Christians also want a more religion-centered holiday. In an article entitled “Putting Christ Back Into Christmas” in America magazine, John Kavanaugh suggests that Christmas must remain a predominantly religious holiday.
“In this time of ‘Merry Xmas,’” he says, “Christians will be liberated from idol worship only if they place Christ. . .back in the moral center of ‘happy holidays.’”
Rabbi Sissy Coran, the JewishAssociate chaplan, said she agreed. “Christmas is a solemn event [for Christians],” she says. When non-believers celebrate Christmas, she contends, it “denigrates the religiosity of the holiday.”
John Cogley, former executive editor of The Commonwealth, wrote in 1952, “Even to those who say Christmas is a myth, just the possibility of it, the fact that millions upon millions have believed it, gives the feast its ultimate meaning.” Is it then possible to celebrate Christmas as a non-religious holiday?
“‘Christmas’ is a religious word,” says Rev. Rick Spalding, the College chaplain. “There is not a way of celebrating Christmas that is not religious.”
However, he grants that there are a number of ways of celebrating the season that have “great integrity, beauty and value.”
Secular culture has created “rituals to sharpen our attention” on valuable parts of our lives and culture that are not necessarily religious, says Rev. Spalding. These rituals invite us to “pause to notice the meaning of generosity, hope and the possibility of peace on earth.”