Almost immediately after the orange and black decorations of Halloween are tucked away, they are replaced with the ubiquitous green and red. The annual commercial onslaught of Christmas has begun.
As the retail world hawks its seductive sales, the Christmas lights and tinsel are strung on towering trees and the holiday music and TV programs vie for attention. Children whose families belong to minority religions often can be left lusting for inclusion.
I should know, I’m Jewish. As a child – and admittedly even as an adult – the jealousy pangs are not easily quelled when you celebrate an eight-day festival sorely eclipsed and influenced by a far more seductive December 25th. So it comes as no surprise each year when I face the inevitable questions from my two children, ages 9 and 11, which I once asked my parents: “why don’t we celebrate Christmas like everyone else?”
Whether observing a less popular winter holiday, an ethnic version of Christmas or no festivities at all, this is one time of year when one’s religious minority status comes into sharp focus.
Mary Heine, a web designer in Salt Lake City, explains to her children each year why they don’t observe Christmas, or any other winter holiday for that matter. As a member of the United Church of God, Heine strives to be straightforwardly honest with her four sons, ages 4 to 15, about their unique faith.
“They don’t seem swayed by the marketing.”
The United Church of God claims about 13,000 U.S. members practicing a cross between Christianity and Judaism. They celebrate seven holidays, the last one falling in September or October.
“Our children are fairly easygoing about the season,” Heine says, “and because they have never celebrated the holiday, there isn’t an emotional attachment to it.”
“They don’t seem to be swayed by the marketing. We have so much marketing coming our way that Christmas season marketing doesn’t seem like such a big deal,” she says.
On one occasion, one of Heine’s sons explained to an apologetic cashier, inquiring about his Christmas wish list: “don’t be sorry, I just think Jesus was born in the spring instead of the winter.”
Heine’s reaction? “I was chuckling to myself feeling a bit sorry for the poor cashier. To her credit, she shot back, ‘You know what? That’s an interesting thought.’”
Despite Salt Lake City’s reputation as a religious melting pot, Heine realizes her children still may experience some emotional upheaval practicing a distinct religion:
“I think it’s natural and normal to want to ‘fit in’…to not stand out as an oddball.”
That’s certainly how she felt growing up. “My world wasn’t as tolerant and understanding of differences of beliefs – I remember feeling lonely and a bit ostracized during the Christmas season as a kid.”
“he emphasizes to his children that Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrated in a ‘grand fashion.’
Having emigrated from India at age 7, Arun Chandrakantan grew up without the religious and cultural infrastructure that exists for his family today in America. Chandrakantan’s parents instilled pride in the depth, beauty and tolerance of Hinduism he passes to his own children, ages 3 and 6. (Hindus make up about 0.4 per cent of the U.S. population.)
“As Hindus, we can respect all religious paths, but do not need to celebrate the religious holidays of other traditions,” says Chandrakantan, a doctor who now lives in Dallas.
He emphasizes to his children that Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrated in a “grand fashion” just as they celebrate Diwali.
During the five-day Hindu Festival of Lights (usually falling between October and December) the Chandrakantans take off from work and school to worship at the local Hindu temple.
The family hasn’t escaped Christmas commercialism entirely. Chandrakantan admits along with traditional clothing presents, he may give more expensive Diwali gifts “to make this compatible with America where large material items are bought for Christmas.”
Maryam Ozer, an Albanian-born Muslim, has a simple method for handling retail marketing. “We try to limit the TV watching during this season.”
If her children see items on sale during Christmas, she promises to fulfill their wish list as part of the two Eid festivals, this year on Sept. 20 and Nov. 27. About 0.6 percent of Americans are Muslim, the Pew Forum reports.
Ozer’s children, ranging from 3 to 9, don’t seem to feel alienated during Christmas.
“Year after year they know our response: every religion has its important day. We don’t celebrate Christmas and they don’t celebrate our day,” says Ozer, a freelance translator and short-story writer in Alpharetta, Georgia
Ozer says, the children can send Christmas cards to their friends and ask them to reciprocate on appropriate Muslim holidays.
Coming from a communist country that banned religions, Ozer appreciates the diversity. She finds herself swept up by holiday spirit, for no other reason than people around her are happy.
“It generally gives you a warm feeling even if it is not your celebration. I’d like more days like this.”
It’s not easy to resist the lure of Christmas, says Dr. Susan Linn, a nationally-recognized child psychologist who has written extensively about the effects of media and commercial marketing on children.
“We need to directly address commercialism in our children’s lives. It’s a problem in every family…Christian families as well.”
The way Christmas has evolved, it’s especially difficult for other cultures to compete, and they shouldn’t try, says Linn, who is Jewish but celebrates Christmas.
“You have to acknowledge [children’s feelings] that it’s a challenge to be a minority at times when the majority culture seems to be everywhere.”
She recommends families stress the social, political and spiritual meaning in their own holidays over gift-giving frenzy:
“Whatever gift exchange you engage in, it should be a celebration of giving as well as receiving. Talk with your children about the similarities and differences between the holidays”, she says.
“It’s important for them to know that Christmas is a major holiday” for Christians. Not necessarily so for other winter holidays, such as Chanukah, Linn says.
“If you have a rich family life, rich in traditions with some kind of joy in your culture and spiritual heritage, it may compensate for feeling left out for Christmas.”
The holiday season also provides a great opportunity for minority families to share their celebrations with those from diverse traditions, she says.
“It’s wonderful to have an eclectic group of friends. You are not denying your religion …but helping children feel connected without feeling envious, so they sense the richness of diversity in the world.”