Muslims, Unitarians, Jews, Buddhists, Quakers and practitioners of traditional African religions altogether comprise only around 3 percent of the population in this country, according to the American Religious Identity Survey conducted in 2001 (sample size of 50,000).

Members of these minority religious groups have a unique perspective on how Americans celebrate Christmas. And what they have to say is often critical.

An e-mail message from the Buddhist Vajrayana Center on Harrison Street was, as usual, very tactful in its observation of how Americans keep Christmas, but the implication seems to be that the holidays include some toxicity from which we need to cleansed:

“We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in this retreat … especially during the holiday season when the challenges of contemporary life can seem particularly acute. How wonderful to be able to take some time from our frantic schedule of worklife, homelife, holiday preparations, etc., to spend a few peaceful hours at the Center bringing Buddha Vajrasattva into our hearts and purifying our negativity!”

Rev. Robert Joshin Althouse, abbot and spiritual director of the Zen Community of Oak Park – Empty Sound Temple, was more direct. He described American society during the holidays as “an outward-turning, manic culture that becomes manic about shopping, partying and making noise.”

Nzingha Amma Nommo, the owner of Afri-Ware on Lake Street, agreed with Althouse saying, “The bright lights, tinsel, and automaton babel that streams from the ‘boob tube’ … is quite overdone and nauseating for me.”

Rabbi Gary S. Gerson from Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion feels sorry, in a sense, for his Christian neighbors. “Christmas as a secular American cultural observance … diminishes its character as a holy day for Christians. … The fact that many have reduced it to a commercial ‘buyfest’ … serves to diminish its true character.”

Sensei Althouse agreed. “I like the idea of celebrating Christ’s birth,” he said, “but I think the heavy marketing of our consumer culture really obscures the spirit of this event.”

Rabbi Gerson complained that the all-pervasive nature of how the “holidays” are celebrated in this country makes his job-as one who passes on a different tradition to the congregation’s children-very difficult. What’s more, he sometimes is criticized for questioning the assumption that Christmas is somehow a national holiday.

“Christmas commercialism and its secular cultural function serve to isolate non-Christian Americans,” Gerson said. “It requires careful explanation to our children that Christmas and its various symbols are not Jewish, that singing Christian devotional songs is inappropriate, and, while seeking to prevent this in public schools and in the public arena, to not incur the wrath of those who see Christmas as an ‘American’ celebration.”

Sefika Cubic, a Muslim whose parents immigrated to Forest Park from Monte Negro before she was born, has had a much different experience as a religious minority. Looking for a good education for their daughter, Hasan and Husnija sent Sefika to Trinity High School where she felt very welcomed.

She tells a story about an experience at Trinity that she thinks is “pretty powerful and can apply to people of any other faith.” During her senior year, her religion class went to the school’s chapel to learn about the Eucharist. When asked by her teacher if she would be willing to tell the other students why she would not be receiving communion, she agreed and told her classmates about her Muslim beliefs.

Her teacher then added that Sefika was a model of having integrity, of not going through the motions of an activity when you don’t believe in it. “I did not feel singled out at all,” Sefika said, “and felt her point was very relevant no matter what faith you are-if you are going to participate in your faith, you need to do it because you believe in it.

“My experience at Trinity,” she added, “was absolutely wonderful.”

All the members of minority religions interviewed attempt to keep holy days and participate in rituals which are unique to their own spiritual tradition.

A different vocabulary

What many members of minority religions find themselves doing when bombarded with Christian symbols in the run up to Christmas is translating these images into their own religious vocabulary. At Unity Temple, for example, Unitarians put up an Advent wreath but reframe the meaning of the four candles as a peace candle, a menorah, a world candle, and a Christmas candle.

In the same manner, Nommo said, “I might envision Silent Night’s ‘Mother and Child’ as the Ancient African Virgin named Isis, aka Auset, and son Horus, aka Heru, or I may translate mother as my temple and child as my spiritual and intellectual offspring.”

Many of those interviewed for this article expressed a longing for quiet time in which they could look inward during the darkest time of the year and a frustration with what might be called the overstimulation they experience during the holidays.

Nommo said, “American culture is good at providing distractions in an attempt to keep all people in the mode of looking outside of ourselves for a ‘savior,’ which to me really exists within ourselves.”

According to Geoffrey Plank, a member of the Oak Park Quaker Meeting, not all Quakers describe themselves as Christian. What unites them is the silence in which they worship and the opportunity to hear inspiration from within. At Christmas time, the Friends, as Quakers sometimes call themselves, do not plan choir concerts or stage children’s pageants.

“We worship by gathering in silence, attentive to the immediate spiritual experience of our community,” he said. “Anyone moved by the spirit may speak, but we do not compose sermons in advance, schedule music for our worship or plan ritual observances.”

Sensei Althouse also reflected on the need for meditating in silence.

I think winter in particular is a time for reflection and turning inward. I find that many people get depressed during the Christmas holidays, and I sometimes think it’s because they are pulled in two directions-one being to turn inward, and the other an outward turn [in a] manic culture. So I think this often makes it difficult for people to give themselves permission to spend more time in quiet reflection.

Christian critique

Perhaps the harshest critique of American Christmas observances came from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who would certainly call themselves Christian. In a polemic on their website, they decry the “rank commercialism of Christmas” and the “heathen beliefs” at the root of many Christmas customs. Interestingly, to support their argument, a webpage at watchtower.com quotes Mohandas Gandhi saying, “I have never been able to reconcile myself to the gaieties of the Christmas season. They have appeared to me to be so inconsistent with the life and teaching of Jesus.”

Rev. Taylor, however, sees it differently than most of his religious minority colleagues. To him there is not so much a conflict between his spirituality and the partying done during the holidays as there is a kind of complementary paradox.

“For me personally as well as many in the congregation,” he said, “the Christmas season is a time of profound reverence, coupled with communal merrymaking. There is a mystery at the root of all life, and this time of forging into winter during the darkest time of year provides us with an apt opportunity for compassion, contemplation and commingling.”

Other December celebrations

In the midst of the “Christmas overload,” several members of minority religions attempt to keep holy days and participate in rituals that are unique to their own spiritual tradition.

Chanukah

Jews celebrate what Rabbi Gerson called “a minor Jewish festival,” which commemorates the victory in 165 B.C.E. of a small Jewish army over the ruling Greek Syrians. The key practice is the lighting of the candles of the menorah to recall the reconsecration of the Temple.

Kwanzaa

For the past 13 years Nommo has led a cultural celebration of Kwanzaa in her store at 266 Lake St. It is a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest season which she said has its roots in traditional African practice. Seven candles are lit on a wooden “kinara” to symbolize the principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Winter Solstice

Alan Taylor, senior minister at Unity Temple, said his congregation holds a winter Solstice service that “celebrates the wisdom of earth-centered traditions.” In fact, Unitarian/Universalists try to honor and learn from the rituals of many religious traditions during “the holidays.”

“During the month of December,” Taylor said, “we celebrate Advent in a “more than Christian” way, acknowledging the wisdom of Solstice, the kindling of hope and courage represented in Hanukkah, and the anticipation of light being born amidst the dark, unexpected grace emerging at the most difficult times of life.”

Rohatsu Sesshin

Sensei Althouse said that some time around Dec. 8, the day of Buddha’s enlightenment, his center often holds this seven-day Zen retreat, which takes place in silence and involves intensive meditation practice.

Festival of Sacrifice

Cubic said this year the festival that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, falls on Dec. 20, but because the date of the festival is determined by the lunar calendar, it occurs on different days each year. The same is true for the celebration at the end of Ramadan.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...