A (Hindu) Christmas Carol?
"Keep Christ in Christmas!" is the familiar refrain of Christians who fear the secularization of the holy day celebrating the birth of Jesus, their savior.
But in America, non-Christians often celebrate Christmas.
According to a recent poll by the Christian group LifeWay Research, "A majority of agnostics or those claiming no preference (89 percent), individuals claiming other religions (62 percent), and even atheists (55 percent) celebrate Christmas along with 97 percent of Christians."
Do you need to be Christian to celebrate Christmas? What is Christmas all about?
"Jingle bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way!" And with those lyrics, my septuagenarian father sang to my sons this afternoon on the telephone. Christmas Eve here in Minnesota, it is already Christmas Day in Ahmedabad, India where my parents split their retirement after more than forty years of graduate school, work and raising a family stateside. Sitting there in his sunny veranda, ceiling fan whirring as the mercury touches the upper 80's, this devout Hindu was wistful for the crackling fire, tidy snow layering at the windows and Bing Crosby--his favorite--on the radio singing "Little Drummer Boy."
We did not go to church on Christmas, but our weekly satsang (spiritual discussion and devotional singing) group always added a few songs devoted to another transcendent emissary in addition to those we sang to Lord Krishna or Shiva. There was no confusion there--a pluralistic worldview allowed us to see the inherent divinity of the avatar Jesus--and singing paeans to Him was as uplifting and inspiring. Those satsangs ended with an aarti--ritual offering of lit lamps soaked with purified butter--to the pantheon of Hindu deities in our home, and then, of course, another ritual--opening presents! Two cultures came together, and very different faith traditions found unilateral common ground from our vantage of inclusive celebration.
My Jewish friends growing up in South Florida worked hard to avoid any semblance of Christmas celebration, but there was a complicated history between those faiths that I barely understood. And, I hasten to add, some Hindus I know will replace Merry Christmas rather easily--tongue squarely in cheek--with "Merry-Krishnamas." Creating a hodgepodge of family traditions and rituals runs the risk, some would insist, of diluting belief and confusing ritual as something divorced from spirituality; joyful giving with materialism; respecting Christmas with false appropriation.
Two Christmases ago, I was in India with my parents. Christmas never elicited discomfiture before, as it did that year. Only a percent or two of the six million folks in my parents' hometown were Christian, but the McDonald's and Nike shops brought a strange phenomenon as they were imported from the U.S. A thinly built, much darker toned Santa Claus was ubiquitous. Apparitions of this Indian Santa stood outside every upscale shop in our city, handing out sales placards and chanting a merry greeting associated with a religion he understood not at all. This was no scene of happy pluralistic syncretism, this was overt crass commercialism. That type of Christmas is no Christmas at all, and I would stand with my Christian brethren in a collective tut-tut.
Christmas is accessible to us for its celebration here in our country as it is already so syncretic. Pagan traditions, Christmas trees and lights that illuminate memories of Diwali in Hindus, Christmas always seemed more celebratory and non-threatening. The Yuletide pervades our community as a wondrous season of giving, very much because it is not confined to a fixed religious paradigm here. Let "proper" and orthodox and religious Christmas continue in churches and homes of the believer. I certainly hope it stays as it always has been in the public space. And now, the family awaits me to sit in our altar room and begin our Christmas carol satsang!
Views expressed here are the personal views of Dr. Aseem Shukla, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or Hindu American Foundation.
Posted by: i_rampersad | December 30, 2010 8:26 PM
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