Growing up with no specific religion in the United States can lead many people to claim, “I have no religion. I’m certainly NOT a Christian.” They look at what they would term “real Christians” and they see the difference to be that those folks go to church, believe in Jesus as savior, and observe Christmas and Easter as religious holidays.
America is a BIG country. You can drive for days and not come to a border that requires a passport to cross, a person who doesn’t speak English, or a place where businesses don’t close for Christmas Day. America has a culture that is shaped by the people who settled it, Christians. Christmas and Easter are FEDERAL holidays when the government offices close. These holidays are populated by figures like, Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty and the Easter Bunny. They are a part of the culture. These elements are so engrained in most Americans that they don’t see it as unique. But, like all cultures, American culture is a unique and distinct way of life to those coming to it from a different culture. We have a culture, even if we are too immersed in it to see it.
I refer to those Americans who claim no religious identity as American Folkloric Christians. They have Christmas trees, give gifts, leave out cookies for Santa and truly love the celebration of the holiday and all its trappings. To a lesser extent, they usually love Easter which involved chocolate in the form or eggs or bunnies, an Easter basket and an Easter egg hunt. They make no reference to the resurrection of Christ and don’t go to an early morning Easter service. But they love the food and decorations that accompany the holiday. They enjoy getting together with family over a big meal – very much like Thanksgiving.
They observe these Christian holidays as folkloric, cultural practices.
Now, here’s the rub, for these Folkloric Americans the holidays are for fun and are in fact, so fun, that NO ONE should be without them. I have heard people saying quite sincerely, “It would be cruel to deprive a child of the magic of Christmas.” Thus they imply that their cultural norm holds some ultimate truth that every human being should practice.
For Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Native Americans and others, this can be seen as a frontal attack on their own cultural norms which do not include these holidays. Members of these minority communities may feel confused. Having grown up among American norms, they may question their discomfort with these American practices. The less clear they are about why a particular holiday or holiday practice is not for them, the more upset they are likely to be. They are defending themselves on a very primal level but without the vocabulary to express their concerns.
To the Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Sufis and my fellow Jews, I want to say, each of us has the human right to be who we are and to decline to adopt the cultural holidays of mainstream Christian America. Please don’t be defensive or angry. Try to understand that some minority folks will want to get onboard and have an Easter basket; you don’t have to. Express your sense of self in a soft voice. Graciously decline those invitations that would make you feel inauthentic. Let others have their fun. You have your own. But be civil.
To the Folkloric Christian Americans, I want to say, please wake up to the reality that most of the people on this planet do not have a Christmas tree or Easter basket and they are doing just fine. It is not cruel. Children who don’t practice your cultural holidays won’t feel deprived unless you make a point of trying to make them feel deprived. If you truly welcome diversity, then welcome it. Allow others to be different from you and enjoy the difference.
To the interfaith couples trying to walk the line between religion, culture, children, parents, school chums and next door neighbors, if you can’t get anywhere with your discussions, call me. Let’s talk this through calmly. Compromises that are honest and acknowledged for what they are will avoid suppressed anger and simmering ill will.