Is "Happy Holidays" offensive?
Is your officemate bothered by your cubicle menorah?
Can you participate in Diwali with friends if that isn't a part of your culture?
Is Eid like Christmas? (Is it wrong to make that comparison?)
How does anyone know what to say or do during this holiday season?
For many in the United States, December is month of festivities and solemn observances, including: the period of Advent, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, St. Nicholas's Day, St. Lucia's Day, Winter Solstice, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Las Posadas, Holy Innocents' Day, Pancha Ganapati, Kwanzaa, Mawlid, Saturnalia, and Yule.
Many of us enter into these occasions with eagerness and expectation -- we want to welcome others and we want to mark occasions that often represent deeply held family, regional, cultural and religious traditions.
Sometimes, though, our participation in diverse workplaces, schools, families and a civic square too frequently marked by intolerance and misunderstanding gives us pause. We wonder: Is it wrong to celebrate my holiday publicly? Am I being offensive if I use a particular greeting? Am I appropriating someone else's culture if I take part in an activity that comes from outside my own practice?
Rather than attempting to learn about all of the various holidays one might encounter, I recommend instead cultivating practices and postures that will allow us to encounter and navigate difference openly, gracefully and with a spirit of positive intention. I've gathered five practices that are helpful for navigating holidays and cultural difference. We can call them the Five Ingredients for Dialogue in December:
Use "I" Statements
No one wants you to stop embracing (and celebrating!) the traditions and practices you hold dear. And for the most part, messages of peace, joy, and thanksgiving are welcome (especially when accompanied by delicious food and beautiful decorations and lights). But given the glorious diversity of our public landscape, it is increasingly rare that everyone around you shares the same background, commitments or practices. Speak, and bake, and pray for yourself. A friendly, "My family and I celebrate Christmas--is that something you do?" builds relationship, shows mindfulness and respect, gives you the opportunity to talk about your own valued practices and opens up space for further discussion.
We humans are made to be in relationship with one another -- we are infinitely curious and interested in what our neighbors, colleagues, leaders and fellow commuters are eating, reading, saying and wearing. Fortunately, a posture of curiosity makes learning possible. Listen to how people you respect ask questions. Listen to how others question you in ways that feel OK, and in ways that feel not so OK. Practice asking people you're close to about their beliefs, ideas and practices. Curiosity is a practice -- and it can lead to rich and engaging interfaith work and relationship. Cultivating a sense of wonder about other ways your human brothers and sisters mark occasions of joy and significance can go a long way to establishing trust and collaboration.
Think about being a good neighbor like being a good guest at a party. Try the dip. Help pass the plates. Be kind about saying "no thank you." Be reluctant to judge the tastes of others. Talk to people you don't know and make introductions to those you know well. Pay attention to shifts in volume, mood, and tone. Accept apology if offense is given. Most of us are doing our best--we love our own traditions and rituals, we are open to learning more, and we are sometimes fearful of what we don't know.
Remember That it's OK to Make Mistakes
It would be impossible to prepare to deftly and respectfully respond to all of the varieties of difference most of us will face in our lives. Our brains -- made for categories, reaction, and language -- often make assumptions, forget newer knowledge or leave us speechless when we encounter difference. That's part of being human. If you make an assumption, misspeak, or learn that you've offended, a genuine, "I'm so sorry!" can make a world of difference in maintaining or restoring relationship. Some of the best interfaith conversations I've ever had began with me realizing I had made a mistake -- and before I could experience those rich, life-changing conversations, I had to first say, "Oh my goodness -- that's not what I mean. I'm sorry. How can I...?"
Be Mindful of Issues of Power and Privilege
This is a tough one, because it often surfaces issues of guilt, surprise, resentment and feelings of inadequacy. We all want to think the best of our own traditions and practices, and it can be hard to recognize where members of our culture, region, race or religion caused (and continues to cause) harm to others. And for many of us, at holiday time, we just want to celebrate! Remaining mindful of racism, oppression, cultural appropriation, and the harmfulness of a Christo-centric culture...just doesn't feel merry. And yet: being called to be in ever-greater community with others is one of the hardest parts of being human and one of the best parts of being human. And few of us want our deeply valued traditions and practices to cause others pain or exclusion.
It's good to practice self-reflection, and it's even better to practice mindfulness about those around us, and how our celebrations and actions fit into the wider landscape.
In interfaith studies, we often talk about balancing "the particular and the universal." It's important to understand and be able to articulate our own deeply held beliefs and practices (the particular), and it's also necessary and valuable to work to understand and respect the values and needs of the human community of which we're part (the universal.)
Interfaith dialogue involves practicing and fostering both.
Religious observances provide rich opportunities to consider your own beliefs and those of others.
If you're celebrating this month, match merriment with mindfulness and make it a season of curiosity, conversation and cultivating inclusion.