A month of holidays and holy days

adhupayasa. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

adhupayasa. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

by Katherine Larson

December can be an odd time for those Christians—Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and others—who follow a liturgical calendar. While December 25 itself is Christmas Day, the 24 days that precede it all fall within the season of Advent.

These believers can experience whiplash as they emerge from their worship services, filled with waiting, watching and preparing, into the modern world with “Noel!” caroling prematurely from every loudspeaker.

If these Christians find most of December disorienting, imagine how it feels to non-Christians. Marquette Monthly spoke with a number of U.P. residents of other faiths, and found an array of perspectives on the subject.

Many of them find pleasure in the secular aspects of December celebrations, including Dan and Ann Arnold, who are Jewish.

“One year we had to laugh—there we were, ourselves and two friends in the car: two Jews, an atheist, and a Buddhist, all driving around enjoying the Christmas lights,” Dan said.

Ann made the point explicit.

“We didn’t enjoy them as worship. We enjoyed them as pretty lights on a dark night, showing people’s creativity,” she said.

This idea of enjoying the dominant cultural themes of December celebrations, but not seeing them as a form of worship, was woven throughout these people’s stories.

“Trees, Santa Claus, lights—those have no religious meaning,” said Dennis McCowen, who embraces the Baha’i faith. “There is no basis for them in the Bible I have a Christmas stocking, knitted for me when I was a child. It is precious to me for the memory of the person who knitted it, but I don’t hang it by the chimney. Nor do I believe in flying reindeer—nor do most Christians.”

Buddhist Paul Lehmberg, who is chief priest at Lake Superior Zendo, concurred.

“The holiday has been taken over by solstice celebrations and symbols—trees, Yule logs, and so on,” Lehmberg said. “None of these have anything to do with the actual Christian celebration.”

The way Christmas is celebrated in this country does not have a lot of Christian context and so, in the day-to-day secular world, is not a problem for Dan Arnold.

Where it becomes a problem is when it trespasses on others’ faiths. He used the Christmas tree as an example. Though the tree in modern-day culture has come to symbolize Christmas, it began as part of pagan celebrations.

“At a meeting of the Interfaith Forum one woman spoke up: ‘What about me? I’m Wiccan! They’ve co-opted my holiday,’ Arnold said. “I can certainly understand how she’d find that objectionable.”

Lehmberg said cultural norms make it difficult for others to understand his own holiday celebrations and traditions as a Buddhist.

“An important Buddhist holiday, Rohatsu, commemorates the enlightenment of the Buddha. It is supposed to be marked by a week devoted to intensive meditation. But it occurs in early December,” Lehmberg said, adding it is hard for members of his zendo to set that week aside when cultural norms push toward busyness. “The dominant religion of our culture is so very dominant, and it can be disappointing and frustrating to those who don’t follow that calendar.”

Jews have long lamented that the relatively minor holiday of Hanukkah has taken on far more than its religious level of importance as Jewish parents struggle with their children’s envious frustration. And many Muslims are reluctant to celebrate Mawlid al-Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, lest it become seen as an imitation of Christmas.

For everyone interviewed, matters become more difficult when children are involved.

“It’s awkward for our children, especially since we espouse standards of morality not prevalent in society,” McCowen said. “And we have holy days that Christians don’t celebrate, when Baha’i are not supposed to work or go to school.”

Dan Arnold said, “We do feel it very important to take the kids out of school for the [Jewish] High Holy Days. Their friends will ask them why they weren’t in school, and they will have to answer. The answer helps define who they are: they’re Jewish. If you want your children to grow up Jewish, you have to help them do so, and you have to be the role model.”

But, come December, things got sticky. Ann Arnold remembered a particularly trying time when her daughter was 6.

“She arrived home from school saying, ‘I don’t want to be Jewish. I want to have Christmas.’ ‘Oh no!’ we thought. ‘What do we do now?’” Ann said.

The worried Arnolds soon had their problem solved for them. A couple of days later at their temple, one of the founding women greeted the Arnolds’ daughter, chatting with her and eventually deciding to sit next to her during the day’s service.

“The next day, she trudged to our front door, through the snow, bearing a great big seasonal wreath. It was all in silver and blue, magnificently decorated with ribbons saying ‘Happy Hanukkah,’” Ann said. “It was enormous, and it smelled great. Our daughter’s eyes were huge. I never heard any more about not wanting to be Jewish. I still have those ribbons, and still use them every year. I always will.”

None of those interviewed would correct a stranger who mistakenly wished them a merry Christmas. Lehmberg said. “For me, it’s the motivation that’s important. If someone greets me with warmth, I respond to the warmth. If they’re using the greeting as a bludgeon, that’s different.”

Again, intent matters. Lehmberg added, “The Marquette Choral Society sings music with Christian words, and so far as I can tell the non-Christian musicians sing as wholeheartedly as those who sing with religious intent. I like the music, but not as worship.”

Dan Arnold makes the same distinction. “I enjoy singing. But the context matters. I sing by myself, or in the car, or in a big public gathering. But not in a church. And not in a small gathering, where it might look like I was intending it as part of worship. I sing it as music; I do not sing it if it would be seen as religious.”

In December, the Arnolds will give their traditional Hanukkah party, featuring latkes—fried in oil, in commemoration of miraculously-burning oil that is at the center of the Hanukkah story. Lehmberg will do his best to help his zendo honor Rohatsu. Those Muslims who choose to can celebrate Mawlid al-Nabi. Members of Baha’i, McCowen said, will work on “providing examples of a different way of living.” Liturgically-minded Christians will work their way through Advent until Christmas finally arrives on the 25th.

To all of them, and to all readers of  Marquette Monthly, may the month of December be a meaningful one!

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