This is a joyous time for many Long Islanders, who can visit crèches in the public square and holiday displays in the stores, and sing along to carols on the radio. But what if you belong to a religion that doesn’t celebrate Christ’s nativity? This week’s clergy discuss various approaches to the challenge of being a non-Christian during the Christmas season.
Rabbi Ben Herman
Jericho Jewish Center
Whenever someone feels left out by something not part of our religious tradition, I suggest they embrace something that our faith does. In this case, I advise making their Hanukkah celebration the best ever. Through putting up decorations, playing Hanukkah music, giving gifts and cards, having a holiday party or family gathering and doing public Hanukiyah (Menorah) lightings, we bring Hanukkah to life, coming together as a community during the darkest time of the year.
Some are critical of these methods as trying to turn Hanukkah into Christmas, but for hundreds of years it has been a Jewish tradition to give gelt (money) on Hanukkah and to have festive celebrations to publicize the miracles of the Maccabees’ defeat of the Syrian Greeks and the cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. Rabbi Judith Hauptman of the Jewish Theological Seminary argues that from Talmudic times onward (1500 years ago), lighting one’s menorah in a public place, as mandated in the Babylonian Talmud, came about as a response to the Zoroastrian holy fire. In an age without electricity, fire brought light, joy and hope to people, and creating a Jewish ritual centered on light ensured that Jews would not be drawn away to the practices of other faiths. Similarly, we make Hanukkah our own today through celebrating together with our families, as well as having communal celebrations with “latke cook-offs,” games of dreidel and white elephant gift exchanges. Through making Hanukkah our own we will not feel left out, as we will appreciate that we have reasons to celebrate our blessings just as other religions do.
I.J. Singh of Bellmore
Author of five collections of essays on his journey as a Sikh in America
I came to the United States in 1960 and am now an emeritus professor of anatomical sciences at New York University. Sikhs are a minority no matter where they live, even in India; but there were then perhaps no more than three or four recognizable Sikhs in New York; now there are nearly 100,000, with more than 20 Sikh places of worship. With a preponderance of Christian and Jewish presence around me, quite expectedly my ties with them deepened over the years. I lived in a largely non-Sikh, non-Indian ambiance. I remember my daughter, barely 3 at that time, wanted a tree for Christmas. I thought about it and finally put up a tree but decorated it differently. I hunted for as many religious decorations as I could find to represent as many religions as I could think of to decorate the tree. To the collection of Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist memorabilia I added a symbol or two of Sikhism as well. The result: We had a unique interfaith Christmas tree representative of the major religions of mankind — a true cultural icon of the multireligious, multicultural and multiethnic reality of contemporary American society. Robert Frost said in his poem, “Mending Wall,” that “good fences make good neighbors,” but fences must never hermetically seal neighbors from each other or else communities and societies suffer.
Director of the Multi-Faith Forum of Long Island in Melville
Hindus respect profoundly this beautiful holiday period of Christmas and we share the happiness of the event. But at the same time we believe that it is too commercialized. It has become a big business. We believe that Christmas should be more like a social and spiritual occasion. When an event like Christmas becomes business-oriented, it loses its sanctity. Commercializing Christmas is a no-no from a Hindu perspective. Any faith, such as Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism, is a private and personal election. Once we go in the direction of commercialization and make it a multibillion dollar industry, then all types of unwanted elements become a part of the Christmas observance, which loses its beautiful connotations. In Srimad Bhagwad Geeta, Lord Krishna says that simplicity is the essence of life and it must be sustained by practicing a disciplined mind, disciplined deeds and disciplined interpersonal relationships. Simplicity means that we must refrain from acquiring lavish worldly possessions. In the Hindu religion there are a lot of social and religious holidays and the underlined thought in observance of these holidays is discipline in eating, discipline in talking and discipline in pursuing materialist goals. Life must be respected in its totality devoid of business attitude. At the end of the day we leave everything on this planet. We should be more focused on things that we can carry on the profound trip to our next incarnation.