14 December 2011

Holiday Shenanigans

I've seen and heard a lot of talk about "political correctness" and saying "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" recently.  Of course, much of it stems from the general feeling that "other people" are "taking over" "our country" - rhetoric that any student of history can identify as accompanying a general feeling of unrest in any given culture.  The truth is, our country is - and always has been - a big ol' stew of folks - forget the melting pot.  We aren't melting into one glop of homogeny, we are a tasty mix of potatoes and carrots and meat.  Or beans, if you're a vegetarian.

Anyhow, all of this has come to the surface around Christmastime - which, as it is celebrated here, is itself a big ol' stew of pagan and Celtic and German and Roman (to name a few) traditions.  Those, topped with a lovely helping of consumer frenzy (do you remember when "Black Friday" was a term reserved for those familiar with retail-ese?).  It is also, of course, Solstice-time and Hanukkah-time and Kwanzaa-time (no Eid this year).

And guess what?  We celebrate all four of those holidays.

Primarily because we don't really celebrate any of them.

Confused?  I was.

It started when I was little.  My family (read: mom and dad), bless 'em, were members of the Baha'i Faith.  The Baha'is have an entirely separate set of Holy Days, and none of them happen to fall around the beginning of winter.  However, growing up in the United States, specifically the Midwest, I found myself to be a little Baha'i bobbing around in a sea of mostly Christmas-celebrating peers.  While my friends' families were setting up the delicious-smelling Christmas tree, and baking equally delicious-smelling cookies, decorated in an assortment of brightly-colored frostings (yum!), were were not.  No Christmas lights for us, no wreath...  nothing.  Our house was a dim spot on the corner in an otherwise gaily-lit town.  When people asked me what Santa would bring, I would never really know what to say.  What would Santa bring to a heathen? 

Enter: Gramma.  An important principle in the Baha'i teachings is that of unity - especially among the family - and so my parents would celebrate Christmas with our extended families.  We would go over to my dad's mother's house for a brief stint, but the real fun was at my mom's mother and father's house.  My grandmother was (and is) a teacher, and so she really knew how to relate to little children.  We could decorate the tree there and help gather greens for a wreath and my grandpa would build a fire and we would leave cookies for Santa and stay up late to see a) if we could hear Santa on the roof or b) if we could figure out exactly HOW our Gramma got those presents under the tree.

My cousin and I always contrived to catch/disprove Santa.  One year, my cousin and I stayed up (we took shifts) to wait for Santa, and, late in the night, we actually heard some rustling in the direction of the living room AFTER we had SEEN our Grandma and Grandpa go to bed.  Excitedly (and frankly, a little trepidatiously), we tiptoed to the living room, only to find my uncles putting up a computer in the study.  Our presents from SANTA (for some reason, Santa always wrote his name in capital letters, like he was trying to disguise his handwriting or something) were already under the tree.  Foiled again!

Anyhow, for a little Baha'i kid, I didn't really miss out all that much on the Christmas action, although it always rankled a bit to know that my cousins got more presents than I did.  I knew that if we had celebrated Christmas at home, we would have double the presents, and so I was always a little bitter that my parents had chosen to shift their beliefs.  Not only that, but no one else in our family was a Baha'i, and so we were really the odd ones out.  I don't think anyone approved, either, except maybe my grandmother, and only because she wanted to preserve the family unity.  We were definitely weirdos, and no one wants that, especially a little kid.

Needless to say, it always felt a little off to be celebrating a holiday that we didn't actually celebrate.  The Baha'i time of gift-giving (Ayyam-i-Ha) is in February, before the Baha'i New Year (yeah, we've got a different one of those, too), and it was always a little anti-climactic, since we were the only ones in our family celebrating it.  My parents did their very best to make it seems really special - we had an Ayyam-i-Ha Camel who would leave presents.  Sometimes it would leave presents in laundry baskets.  One year, when I asked for some Honey Nut Cheerios (my mom never bought us sugar cereal, either.  Man - we were lepers!), I was excited and then disappointed to find that it had brought me what looked like a box of the cereal but was in fact some "Get in Shape, Girl" weighted exercise bangles.  What was that all about?  My wrists were weak?  My hands were fat?  Gee whiz!  Santa would have never brought me that - maybe these gift-giving folk need to have a convention or something, and share pointers.

Fast-forward to the present.  I have two children, and ever since the first one was born, I have been acutely aware of the way that we present this Holiday Season.  First of all, there is a huge deluge of Christmas-themed things everywhere.  Walk into Target the day after Thanksgiving, and you'll think you missed a whole month or something, with all the decorations for Christmas.  The television is rife with mentions of Christmas (have you ever seen a Hanukkah special?  I think that there is one, and it stars Adam Sandler.), and kind people ask us at the library or the bank or the grocery store or wherever we go what Santa is bringing the girls for Christmas.  There's no escape!

I needed a strategem, and quick.  Help came in the form of some dear friends - Baha'is, whose family is Jewish - who invited us to celebrate Hanukkah with them.  Slowly, an idea began to form.  We would celebrate and recognize every holiday, but with a twist - we wouldn't celebrate them at home, but we would celebrate them with other people.  That way, the association wouldn't be about the presents (at least, we hope not), but with friends and togetherness.  This association has become even more acute after our recent move.  My girls are Chicago girls, and their friends mostly live there.  We have yet to build those friendships with children here, and so it is a special treat to see our friends.

By now, my girls have it down.  We celebrate Hanukkah with Ma'ani and his family, we celebrate Christmas with Go Go Betty ("great grandma Betty," in two year-old speak), and we celebrate Kwanzaa with the cousins.  We have a good old school friend who is Muslim, and we know that she celebrates Eid at the end of Ramadan (only that won't be in the winter here for a few years), and we celebrate the Solstice as the first day of Winter, Olivia's favorite season.  We know that we have many friends who celebrate Christmas, but we also know that we have many friends who don't, and that takes the burden of isolation off of my little girls.

But the best part is that we also know that we have our very own special Holy Days - ones that we celebrate at home AND with friends - and I have tried to fight the tide of images by bringing out some of our own - making our own family traditions (there's a lot of leeway in the Baha'i Faith for commemorating Holy Days, it being a relatively new religion and all, plus that world-embracing vision thing means that celebrations can be culturally-specific).  We go all out - special tablecloths, special foods, special themes and flowers and decorations.  All of this to help build a strong identity as a world citizen.

And I think that is what is called for today - a sense of appreciation.  We know that we aren't the only people on this earth, and we know that God has lovingly created every single person on this earth, and endowed each person with unique capacities and faculties.  This is our role, then, as citizens of a tiny planet, itself bobbing in a sea of space.  We must learn to celebrate and appreciate our differences, because we know that - underlying them all - is a similarity, a oneness, of the human experience.

So, I say to you:

Merry Christmas
Happy Hanukkah
Joyous Kwanzaa
and Hooray for Solstice!


Khanum said...

Love you Lizzy! Such Inspiration, I've been having those same thoughts recently especially as my kiddies enter the world of consciousness...hope to see you soon!!

Dottie said...

I wish we could have done this with our kids when they were young. It sounds like so much fun.