I was 11 years old, standing on stage with my classmates during our school’s annual Christmas concert in which we were singing the Christmas carol “O Come All Ye Faithful“. During our performance, I decided to make a small modification to the lyrics:
Oh, come, let us adore Him, oh, come, let us adore Him,
Oh come, let us adore Him, Christ your Lord.
As soon as I uttered my modification of the last line (replacing “the” with “your”), I glanced across the hall to see if anyone noticed. It hadn’t appeared that anyone did. And so, I continued to repeat the same line the way for the rest of the performance. I didn’t know what would have happened if the microphone I was standing next to picked up my small act of resistance, but I felt content that I remained true to what I believed were my Sikh principles.
As a Sikh child growing up in the west, the celebration of Christmas has always presented a dilemma. In my home, we never celebrated Christmas, erected a Christmas tree, nor exchanged presents at the end of December. We still do not celebrate to this day. However, it was not out of any antagonistic feeling towards Christians or Jesus Christ that we did not celebrate, but more out of the sense that as Sikhs, the celebration of the birth of Christ was outside the practice of our faith.
However, the celebration of Christmas (and other Christian dates on the calendar) is difficult to manage particularly when living as a non-Christian in a world where Christianity is often the dominant faith. As such, for many non-Christian communities, the Christmas season becomes complicated. With its basis is very much Christian (and arguably before that, pagan), the Christmas celebration so saturates western society, and indeed, much of the world, that it is unavoidable. And, while the season has sometimes taken a more secular character, for those who are not followers of Jesus Christ, the overlap of Christianity upon anything Christmas-related adds a level of complexity for some non-Christians when participating in the celebration.
In a recent article on 3 Quarks Daily, Akim Reinhardt — who is half Jewish — traces his history and relationship with Christmas as a Jew and then as an atheist, and how he has come to terms with the holiday:
The din of Christmas music, a parade of TV specials, holiday parties one after the next, wrangling a tree, shopping for gifts, writing and reading year-in-review cards from friends and family, and a dozen other tasks and signposts: the United States is consumed by Christmas for roughly four weeks every year. And it doesn’t even end on the 26th. Rather, that merely kicks off a week’s worth of giddy de-escalation, the Christmas season not finally relinquishing its hold on society until the New Year’s arrival.
If you have overwrought memories of and expectations for Christmas, it can be quite stressful. If you’ve become jaded about the holiday’s commercialism and relentlessness, it can be incessantly annoying. But if you’re Jewish, and thus imbued from an early age with a uniquely difficult relationship to Christianity, then it can be downright oppressive and wrought with the a deep sense of inner conflict that tears at you from every direction.
Dr. Faheem Younus, on the Huffington Post, addresses the celebration of Christmas from a Muslim American perspective:
Can’t we just celebrate Christmas because it’s fun? You can, I say. Just don’t put the label of religion over it.
Even if Muslim Americans agree with the service approach of “how to celebrate,” the question, “why to celebrate” remains. Why go out of the cozy comfort zone? Why not stay home and unplug?
Notwithstanding the origins of even its name, it is difficult to celebrate Christmas as a purely secular holiday. As much as it is a tradition of family and friends coming together in a spirit of peace and harmony exchanging gifts and reinforcing bonds among each other during the winter season (only made so due to the religious holiday from which it derives its name), so much of the Christmas tradition is associated with and emphasizes Jesus Christ as an incarnation of God. While we can recognize Jesus Christ as an enlightened soul on this earth, he is not someone that Sikhs would see as someone to be worshiped (though we will defend the right of those who choose to do so). Further, even the practice of gift-giving is an invocation of Santa Claus, a Christian saint.
This is not to say that in my family we harbored any ill-will towards the open celebration of Christmas by Christians. As children, during the season when wished a “Merry Christmas”, we were taught that we should offer the same in return. And, today, I take the Christmas greeting with the good intent in which it is offered, and return the gesture. Accordingly, for many Sikhs, we must situate ourselves within a range of compromise: celebrate fully the religious celebration, or celebrate as “secularly” as possible . In my family, we bypassed the celebration almost entirely.
This year, I observed the large number of Sikhs offering a “Merry Christmas” greeting on December 25th, not just to Christians but to other Sikhs as well. In fact, a recent article in the Appeal-Democrat discussed how Sikhs in the Yuba City, California, area partake in the Christmas celebration:
“It’s part of our culture in America,” said [Ashlie] Mandare, of Gridley, now studying for a master’s degree in accounting at California State University, Chico. “We try to fit in the best we can.”
Mandare said her family’s Christmas traditions began with her soon after she began watching holiday specials as a kid, then taking part in Christmas-themed activities at school. She eventually convinced her grandparents, who raised her, to put up a tree and decorate it, then spread it to the house and then she began shopping for gifts.
“Every year became more elaborate,” she said.
Many other Sikhs have celebrated Christmas for decades, stemming from both embracing local traditions as they emigrated to the United States and their familiarity with Christianity from missionaries centuries ago in India.
Indeed, celebrating Christmas is seen to be part of what it is to be “American”, a cultural definition that is not expressed within the country’s founding principles. Akin Reinhardt, in his article referred to above, ties the celebration of Christmas with a sense of “being American”. By not celebrating Christmas, do we distance ourselves from the perception that we are American? At a fundamental level, I often wonder if this question is part of the motivation of many Sikhs to celebrate — we already appear and worship very differently, but by celebrating Christmas, we are at least weaving ourselves into the cultural fabric and can claim and display some of Americana for ourselves.
Of course, a large motivation is likely to see our own children not feel that they are being excluded because of their religious identity from Christmas or holiday events at schools, or from receiving gifts like other children. It’s probably not unreasonable to think many Sikh parents do not want to leave their children with the impression that Sikh boys and girls must go without, compared to their friends.
At the same time, compared to the number of Christmas greetings, I hadn’t noticed the same level of activity by Sikhs in recognition of important Sikh commemorations, such as the martyrdom of Mata Gujri and the two younger Sahibzadas, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, the anniversary of which is on December 26th. As a Sikh, I wonder if the amount of (or lack of) recognition we give to our own historic events during the Christmas season is indicative of anything. And, I also wonder whether we should even look at our own commemorations in the context of Christmas celebrations. One commemoration should not be seen as a response or alternative to the other, and we should not emphasize our own commemorations out of a sense of competition.
But, this is often how we navigate our way through the holidays without the guilt we may feel about sacrificing our own traditions.
A comparable to Sikhs and Christmas is the November celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, when Sikhs, dwarfed in population by the Hindu majority in India, celebrate Bandi Chhorh Diwas at the same time. This celebration by Sikhs of Guru Hargobind’s release from prison in 1619 is uniquely celebrated by Sikhs in the same way as Diwali by lighting candles and fireworks, but such acts are not done for any other Sikh observation. There are some who even believe that Bandi Chhorh Diwas has no historical basis, and that Bandi Chhorh Diwas has become prominent because it provides a “Sikh-sanctioned” way to celebrate Diwali.
Perhaps, this appropriation of religious custom into our own is how many Sikhs reconcile being a religious minority in a society in which their practices are not aligned with that of the majority religious group. Like the Yuba City, California, families above, many Sikhs participate in the more secular aspects of Christmas, including installing a Christmas tree and exchanging gifts. Even more, many will garland the tree with elements of Sikh-ness: ornaments based on Sikh symbols such as the Khanda or with the words Ik Onkar. Yet, to garland a tree in such a way seems to me to begin to approach idol worship, something that is not an acceptable practice in the Sikh faith.
Admittedly, in recent years I toyed with the idea of celebrating Christmas in its secular form, even knowing that there exists no clear delineation between the secular and the religious celebration. It would certainly be nice to just participate in the celebrations of others around me. However, I have difficulty reconciling the dilemma that Christmas brings. And, while I do not begrudge other Sikhs for finding their compromise with this holiday, we do need to understand the meaning behind why and what we celebrate (as a colleague recently discussed with me), rather than blindly follow rituals and practices. It is perhaps why, as a child, I was so careful about the language I sang in Christmas carols in school, because such language was not in line with what we are taught as Sikhs. Indeed, such awareness is what the founder of Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, preached over and over again. In this season, we should be careful not to forget those lessons.