The Holiday Season: Resolving the Multi-Faith Family Holiday

Around this time of year there’s always a bit of an uproar here in North America (it appears to be less of an issue in other countries, but that I suppose makes sense, as Canada and the U.S. are countries of immigrants, with incredible cultural variety and much less of a shared history to draw upon).  What this uproar centers around, of course, is the fundamental discord between “freedom of speech” and “freedom from religious oppression”, and of course these are just the sorts of debates that cause people to leave their brains behind and just scream incoherently at each other about “rights” and “freedoms” and “my god is bigger than your god”.

This year’s Yule Tree — note the pentagram tree topper, Jack Skellington ornaments, and a platypus hiding in the branches.

Now, there are some parts of this debate that are easy to resolve.  Religious displays do not belong on government property, for example, and workplaces must provide accommodation for people who need specific days off to celebrate their various religious festivals — this is basic human rights stuff.

What gets trickier is resolving the more human side of things: for example, how do you celebrate the holidays when your family is atheist, or agnostic, or interfaith?  How do you explain to a child why your family has one celebration, while their friend’s family has another, without seeming judgmental and giving your child inaccurate or bigoted views?  How do you have an inclusive holiday, while still celebrating your own specific religious affiliation?

My family has not always been the best at being inclusive.  They’re rather conservative people, and topics with which they’re uncomfortable just get glossed over and ignored, or subtly mocked until someone changes the subject.  This is how they deal with my sexuality, my choice of career, most of my friends (whom they tend not to approve of) … and my faith.  My response to this has been to distance myself from a lot of their holiday celebrations — the last few years, I’ve limited myself to just showing up for the one day when everyone sits down to a feast at Grandma’s house, and pleading off for the rest of the week (I accept all sorts of extra work shifts during that time so as to have lots of excuses).  This way I get to see the family members I like, eat a bunch of Grandma’s wonderful cooking, limit my exposure to the family members I don’t like, and actually enjoy myself.

This seems to be a common response from members of the younger (ie, my) generation when it comes to holiday traditions.  We respond to what we see as the intolerance of the older generation by stepping away from many of the traditions and celebrations that we grew up with.  And it’s fine … except that tradition and celebration are a big part of what makes communities, and they tend to be the centers of our social lives.  So while more close-knit families are spending a week or more practicing and enjoying their togetherness, the rest of us are working lonely overtime shifts and feeling just a little bit depressed about our lot in life.

When I was in university, I got downright nasty cases of “holiday bitterness”.  As exams came to a close, I’d be waving goodbye to all of my friends for two or three weeks, and holing myself up in my apartment with a gallon of eggnog and a copy of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” on DVD.  After a few years of this, I came to realize just how much I missed about my family’s traditions … and I started re-inventing them to suit myself and my life.

The family I come from is predominantly Christian/Catholic (although my parents are actually atheists — growing up we just skipped the part where everyone else went off to church).  So our traditions all centered around that: Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas foods, Christmas stories, midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and thanking Jesus for all of the food (even though Grandma had made it).  Even as a kid I was uncomfortable with the overt religiousness of  the holiday, and this only grew worse when I started discovering my own faith in my teen years (first identifying myself as a Buddhist, then a Wiccan, then mellowing out slowly into my current faith, which is a sort of melange of many Neo-Pagan and Eastern ideas without any central god-figure).  I felt a lot of pressure to walk away entirely from things that were Christian, since I was clearly not Christian.  I didn’t feel that I should participate in celebrations that were not of my faith.

Once I’d moved away from the very small, very white, very conservative town where I grew up, though, I started making friends with other people who were non-Christian — some who had even been raised that way from birth, and had never celebrated Christmas at all.  And I started reading about and researching other faiths (a part of that “mellowing” into my own faith that I mentioned), and I realized just how many of the traditions that I identified as Christian were actually not Christian at all.

One of the first traditions that I chose to take back into my life was decorating a tree — a part of ancient, pre-Christian Yule festivities that was merely appropriated by the Christians, and that still persists in some non-Christian parts of the world in the form of the “new year’s tree”.  I choose “non-traditional” colours (this year it’s purple and black and silver), and I invite friends to come over and spend a day making home-made decorations for it.  And usually we watch some slightly-non-Christmas movies, like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, to keep us in the right mood.  Bringing this sort of a celebration into my space, and sharing it with friends, was a big step for me in learning to enjoy the holidays.

Friends are a big part of my holiday.  I love the tradition of exchanging gifts, even just small ones, and enjoy being able to do so.  I’m also a big fan of get-togethers and dinner parties at any time of year, and so I usually host at least one in December.  I also like to encourage my friends to share bits of their faith and their traditions, so that my holiday celebrations aren’t the sterilized, politically-correct “faith-free” affairs that sometimes replace more traditional celebrations — people are asked to bring their family’s traditional foods, drinks, songs, and stories to share and talk about.  Because for however much I don’t like having my family’s religion shoved down my throat at their celebrations and my faith ignored, I also don’t like the idea of suppressing other people or just pretending that their faiths don’t exist and aren’t important.

Heidi “helping” me to crochet a gift for a friend by knocking over the yarn basket.

I also make some effort to celebrate the 21st, the shortest day of the year.  I see this date (as opposed to the 24th or 25th or the dates of Hanukkah or whatever else) as being inherently interfaith — in many cultures it’s the traditional “new year”, and there have been feasts and celebrations and traditions springing up around the winter solstice for as long as there have been recorded human civilizations.  There’s also an attractive science-y feel to celebrating something that is dependent upon the earth’s rotational axis and elliptical orbit.

I’ve also learned to be more accepting of things that have a lot of overt Christian-ness to them.  While for a time I was hostile to anything that evoked my family’s faith, which I saw as fundamentally flawed and exclusionary and judgmental, I’ve since learned not to apply the traits of a few Christian people to the whole Christian faith.  So I can sit down, now, and watch movies or plays that evoke a traditional, religious view of Christmas without feeling angry or upset about it, and I think that’s a very good thing — too often we respond to judgmental and negative attitudes by becoming judgmental and negative ourselves, and it’s a temptation that we shouldn’t fall into.

I’m still working on figuring out this whole “interfaith holiday” thing, and I think it’s a celebration that’s going to continue to evolve as I observe it every year.  But I think that the important thing to take away from this is that no one should be left feeling excluded, and traditions are what you make of them — I’m making lots of them  right now.

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One Response to “The Holiday Season: Resolving the Multi-Faith Family Holiday”

  1. These ideas and the clear articulation of them? One of the many reasons you are my favourite Karen ever. (And just one of my favourite people.)

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