There are countless Americans who do not share Christian beliefs and religious celebrations, and in an era of political correctness, is it “PC” to place such an emphasis on a “holiday season” that is not all-encompassing? What does this time mean for those who celebrate the holiday—and for those who do not?
In search of answers, I sat down with several students who have an array of religious approaches and belief systems,. I realize that my list barely begins to scratch the surface of the array of existing beliefs, but I tried to incorporate a far-reaching spectrum of opinions by speaking with those who identify as Christian, Hindu, Jewish, agnostic, Muslim and Atheist.
Kelley Freeman – Atheist
Kelley Freeman, a third-year Russian Studies student, celebrates Christmas like the average American.
“I go home, spend time with my family and enjoy a warm fire, dinner and the younger kids getting excited for Santa. It’s just a time to celebrate the closeness of family and the winter season.”
For Kelley, the holiday is anything but religious. As an atheist, Kelley doesn’t subscribe to a religion, and she feels no spiritual connection to Christmas. At home, she chooses not bow her head during family prayer, a subtle sign of her de-conversion from Christianity that began in high school. Though she wasn’t comfortable expressing her beliefs at the time, she now leads other non-religious students as president of the Pastafarians at USC.
Taking this public stance is not always easy for Kelley. She faces hostility for not believing in a god and has even been called a devil-worshipper (an ironic name, she notes, given that she does not believe in worship). Because many Americans are uncomfortable with atheism, Kelley says it is frustrating around the holidays when some stubbornly resist using the inclusive substitute “Happy holidays” for the more obviously pointed “Merry Christmas.” Others accuse her of trying to destroy Christmas.
Though she thinks nativity scenes on government property are a church-state violation, Kelley doesn’t see anything politically incorrect with Christmas itself and is not surprised that it is a dominant holiday in a country where Christianity is the major religion. She enjoys taking part in the celebration and its traditions and appreciates when others make an effort not to exclude non-Christians.
“People of all faiths celebrate the holiday season for family, hope and love,” she says. “It’s nice when people recognize that there are other faiths and non-faiths that celebrate differently than them.”
Firas Freajah – Muslim
As someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, Firas Freajah has mixed emotions about the holiday season. The third-year international business and management student follows Islam, which emphasizes the teachings of the prophet Muhammed and daily worship.
“I appreciate Christians who celebrate the holiday with more of an idea to worship than by focusing on materialistic things,” Firas says. “It’s pleasant to see the jolliness of Christmas and, as a Muslim, unity is very important. Seeing people together is great, but I’m also upset that such an idea turned into something so commercial.”
Firas grew up in Jordan and moved to the U.S. in high school. He says that doubt and critical thinking led him to study religions and their chronology. From this, he concluded that Islam is the most rational faith for its origins as well as the harmony and structure it provides Muslims. In compliance with Islamic ritual, Firas prays five times a day, a practice which is called Salah or Salat and tries to read the Quran daily. The main Islamic holidays are Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha, which emphasize ideas like sacrifice and devotion.
“We celebrate the Islamic holidays by glorifying and praising God together. Then we have breakfast, and the children usually get toys or money,” he says.
Firas chooses not to participate in any Christmas parties or traditions since the holiday is inconsistent with his beliefs, but he doesn’t see any political issues with its emphasis in the U.S. On December 25, he spends time reading, relaxing, visiting family and going to his mosque for worship.
“A Muslim won’t feel left out on Christmas if he has a few Muslim friends,” he says.
Despite his differing beliefs, Firas is happy for Christians’ celebration around the holiday. He even takes advantage of the Christmas sales and gets carols stuck in his head from time to time.
Scott Heise – Christian, non-denominational
Scott Heise, a third-year exercise science student, is a firm believer in celebrating Christmas but dislikes the way the holiday revolves around commercial aspects such as presents and decorations.
“We’ve made something that was great all about us,”he says.
While it can be easy to fall into the hype of gift-giving, Scott says his family helps him remember the meaning of the holiday as a celebration of Christ’s birth. Traditionally, they volunteer at their church in December, which Scott says is a way to spend valuable time together while serving his god.
Scott is the president of Young Life, a nationwide, non-denominational organization that places young adult leaders at high schools to mentor younger students and to teach them about Christianity.
“Our job is to go to high schools and make relationships with kids and to walk alongside them, sharing Jesus along the way,” he says.
Through his involvement with this group, Scott says he has found a strong community that helps him to develop his own faith while sharing it with others. He believes community plays a large role in maintaining one’s faith, especially after moving away from home.
“I love Jesus, and I feel like people get caught up in the details when they shouldn’t,” he says.
Though he was raised Baptist, Scott does not affiliate himself with any particular branch of Christianity anymore because he thinks his fundamental beliefs in his god and Jesus are what should be important.
Scotty Shinbaum – Jewish
What would you say is the most important Jewish holiday? If images of lighting a menorah or spinning a dreidel come to mind, think again.
“Hanukkah is actually a minor holiday,” says Scotty Shinbaum, a fourth-year sports and entertainment management student. “But because it coincides with Christmas, and Christmas has become so commercialized, to an extent it’s become commercialized, too.”
In reality, Hanukkah is not even one of the five major holidays that the Torah mandates followers observe. The five holidays are Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. The holidays are typically recognized by synagogue attendance or gathering for meals with family.
Scotty serves as president of the Hillel Foundation and a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, both Jewish-centered organizations. He was raised practicing Judaism but was exposed to Christmas in his community and through Christian relatives. Because his maternal grandfather was Christian and his mother was raised celebrating Christmas, Scotty’s family usually has a small Christmas tree and stockings in their home.
“The decorating is about the personal meaning to her,” he says.
Outside of this small nod to Christianity in his family home, Scotty usually avoids Christmas parties. Many other Jews do the same, he says, because they don’t feel comfortable celebrating a holiday for a different faith.
“As far as political correctness, many Jews recognize that Christianity is the dominant religion and belief in America and that Christmas is celebrated by the majority of people,” he says. “Personally, I have no problem with people expressing their religion openly, as long as they don’t impose upon others.”
Arti Patel – Hindu
There are no Hindu holidays in the winter, but Arti Patel doesn´t feel left out. In fact, she enjoys taking part in Christmas festivities with family and friends.
“I love when Christmas comes around because it is advertised with beautiful lights and Christmas gifts,” says the fourth-year exercise science student. “If Christmas wasn’t here, the winter season would feel incomplete.”
Hinduism originated in India, and the faith worships many gods as manifestations of one supreme god, called Brahman. Arti is a devoted Hindu, but she enjoys learning about other religions to find common ground with people who have different beliefs. She has been involved with the Methodist Student Network for service projects, along with the Indian Cultural Exchange and Omega Phi Alpha.
“I believe in all religions working together toward peace,” she says.
Arti remains strong in her own faith through daily prayer, repeating ancient Sanskrit hymns that she knows by heart, and she sometimes attends a Hindu temple in Columbia.
“These rituals have become a part of my daily life,” she says. “Practicing them is one of the most important things that I do during the day.”
Arti celebrates the Hindu holidays, called festivals, throughout the year. They are all major, she says, and typically focus on the celebration of prosperity, faith and good things to come. She loves getting together with her family and friends on Diwali, the Festival of Lights, to celebrate with fireworks in order to ward away evil spirits.
“The house is usually cleaned, delicious homecooked meals are made, sweets are shared and new clothes are bought,” she says. “The following day is Sal Mubarak, meaning “Happy new year,” during which everyone blesses each other for a good and prosperous year.”
Joseph Welsh – Catholic
At Joseph’s home parish in Aiken, SC, Christmas decorations don’t come out of their boxes until December 24. This wait to decorate until Christmas Eve helps Joseph, a third-year international business and management student, focus on the significance of the holiday as marking the birth of Jesus Christ, which he feels truly is the reason for the season.
“Everything in my life is influenced by Christ, and none of it would be possible without Christmas,” he says.
Traditions are important aspects of the holiday for Joseph, who practices Catholicism, a branch of Christianity that maintains the Catholic Church as the one true church founded by Christ. Joseph is president of the Newman Club, a campus organization for Catholic students and feels that most of his Christmas traditions are similar to those of other branches of Christianity.
“We recognize Advent, which is the period before Christmas, as a time of reflection and, in some ways, repentance,” he says. His prayer books help him prepare for the holiday during Advent, and for him, the Christmas holiday actually starts with his family´s tradition of attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Joseph sites community service as another important holiday tradition. The Newman Club’s main service project is an “angel tree,” where local, underprivileged children write their Christmas wish lists on paper ornaments that are then hung on a tree and displayed in stores in the community. The Newman Club members choose a few angels and buy the requested gifts as a way to give back to the community.
Joseph views Christmas as a reminder of what is important in his life.
“It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the business of life, such as school, work and student organizations,” he says. “Christmas is a chance and challenge for me to concentrate more on my faith and strengthen my relationship with God.”
Roshni Rao – Agnostic
Roshni Rao, a PhD student in immunology and president of the Indian Student Organization, grew up in Bangalor, India with Hindu parents where she was exposed to a variety of different religions.
“The more I started identifying myself with one particular religion the more questions came up, and I found a lot of holes,” she says. “I didn’t think that it was right for me to pick and choose what I wanted to believe because I don’t believe in everything the Hindus say or everything the Bible says.”
As an agnostic, Roshni doesn’t identify with any one religion but doesn’t deny the existence of God, either. She likes aspects of different religions and participates in holidays with friends and family members who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. For example, she celebrates Christmas by visiting her relatives in California and exchanging gifts. While living in India, she attended midnight Mass with her Christian friends and sang Christmas Carols with their families.
“Christmas is a big deal for me as well, but it’s more about spending time with family, doing good and being good rather than identifying myself as a Christian,” she says.
As an international student and a non-Christian, Roshni doesn’t see anything politically incorrect about Christmas or the proclaimed “holiday season” and has never felt pressured to treat it as an exclusively Christian holiday.
“I wish people would leave political correctness out of something so simple as Christmas because, to me, Christmas is simply about coming together with people that mean the most to us,” she says. “At least during that part of the year, families sincerely attempt to make time for one another, and for that I am grateful.”
Despite the many religious beliefs and non-beliefs that exist among students, Christmas certainly seems to have found a home in America. It also seems to include those who want to be included. And in the end, who doesn’t like a day off? Whether or not you deck the halls this season, we can all enjoy the day simply for what it is – a holiday.