Wednesday, December 7, 2011
The Multi-cultural Holiday Dilemma
In the main entry a large Christmas tree reached almost to the ceiling and in the office a smaller tree stood on the counter that separated students from the school secretary. Someone taped a cluster of mistletoe above the wide arch that led to the cloakroom. Minutes after the second bell rang files of junior high students left their homerooms one class at a time to make their way to the school's large auditorium to rehearse for the annual Christmas assembly. Every homeroom class took a turn---except mine.
I was in the eighth grade when I learned not everyone observed Christmas. My homeroom teacher was Jewish and refused to participate in Christmas or Easter observances. Those of us in her class felt cheated. We wanted to be part of the assembly even if all we did was join in singing carols. It was hard to study and learn grammar rules while all of the other students in the school were in the auditorium rehearsing, goofing off, and having fun. We did get to attend the assembly with the principal and assistant principal sitting with our class, but were painfully aware none of the talented singers or dancers in our class set foot on the stage.
Over the years many events have brought glimpses of understanding concerning that awkward Christmas. Certainly a non-Christian school teacher should not have been required to participate in that assembly; I've never felt any animosity toward her for her refusal to be part of something she didn't believe in. She was, in fact, an excellent teacher who did much to encourage me and her many other students. However, I have wondered at times why a few parents weren't asked to chaperone our class and help us to be participants in an assembly that was a big deal back then.
A few years later in another community, I noticed a handful of students sitting in the library with their textbooks open before them as the rest of the students made their way to the auditorium for a Christmas program presented by a traveling university group. I knew those students were Jehovah's Witnesses and a few were Jewish. I found something sad about them studying while the rest of us were enjoying a delightful program.
These two instances were a stark contrast to another school I attended where every student was required to take choir, all thirty four of us. It was a small school. If anyone checked, we probably represented a half dozen or more different faiths as well as including a Native American and a couple of atheists and our choir director was the Baptist preacher from a nearby town. We sang at his church, at the LDS church, at the Catholic Church, and at several other protestant churches. We sang for naturalization ceremonies, graveside services, Easter Sun Rise Services, and Christmas programs. It was one of the richest experiences of my school years.
In today's political climate too often the solution to mixed faiths and observances has become outlawing all such observances. No one's God is allowed in school. That's sad. Our lives and our culture will only be strengthened and enriched by learning more of other cultures and the faiths of other people. To shut away our history and religious traditions hurts more than helps world unity.
I visited a beautiful historical church in San Antonio a few years ago where the priest conducted a short service for us, but knowing most of our group weren't Catholic he quoted some well-known nondenominational poetry in place of prayers. I was disappointed and couldn't help contrasting that service with the solemn warmth of a Christmas mass I attended once with a friend where the service was steeped in hundreds of years of spiritual custom . My mother-in-law was a registered nurse. In an attempt to be fair to everyone, the hospital administrator assigned everyone to work on Christmas Day, but a Jewish nurse went to Mom with a suggestion that my mother-in-law trade her Christmas hours for the other nurse's Hanukah ones. As a young reporter, I and my family were invited to a Lutheran Church for their festival of lights, Santa Lucia. It was a choice experience my small children have remembered and occasionally speak of, though they are parents themselves now. I believe attending other churches and honoring other faith's traditions leads to understanding and openness between various peoples.
When I worked for the City Library, I spent a number of years at a small branch library on the west side of Salt Lake City. Our patrons were very diverse since that seems to be an area where refugees settle first when they come to Utah. It was fun to share the excitement and enthusiasm of our youngest patrons as various cultural and religious holidays arrived. I particularly remember a little Vietnamese boy, who never stopped chattering, trying to explain to a shy little Muslim girl, who never spoke to anyone, why the library ladies had a tree with lights on it inside the library. Children have no problem observing every feast or holiday and inviting other children of different cultures to join them and they are anxious to learn about different celebrations. We adults should be more like that. We should welcome opportunities to share our traditions and beliefs and we should embrace occasions when we can be part of other cultures' and denominations' observances. The peace and understanding most faiths claim to seek can best be found through sharing our celebrations, not by hiding them away for fear some might be offended. We should go the second mile to enable others to observe those occasions important to them too. Not only should no one be pressured to observe a religious holiday they feel uncomfortable with; neither should anyone be kept from openly participating in observances they find important. Diluting a religious observance to something non-denominational isn't the answer either. Our culture can only benefit from sharing the events we find significant rather than hiding them from public view.