I can remember in grade five or six wondering during the Lord’s Prayer if a Muslim would be allowed to put a rug on the floor and kneel, facing Mecca to offer his or her morning prayers. It briefly crossed my mind to convert, or claim to convert to see if it were possible. I reckoned the chances were fifty/fifty. It seemed reasonable to me to allow an alternative form of prayer so long as the Muslim was also respectful of the Christian prayers. It was a small country school in a school board of three schools so really there was little need for rigidity. On the other hand, some people could have little tolerance for something out of the ordinary. I remained a nominal Christian.
What was fun about those times was the unapologetic joy in the build up to Christmas. In some schools, the piano was dragged into a hallway and carols were sung for a few minutes every morning. We cut and coloured and painted unabashedly Christmas decorations and there was a Christmas concert. The gym was overcrowded and the little ones waved to their parents and the older students took pride in their choir.
There wasn’t a great deal of talk about the religious side of Christmas; perhaps our teachers assumed we would hear enough at home and at church. Or perhaps they reckoned it wasn’t their job to teach the religious aspects of Christmas. On the other hand, if the topic did come up in class, it wasn’t a problem. Some of our parents were very religious, others only set foot in church for weddings and funerals. It didn’t really matter. Christmas was important. Family got together and feasted. There was laughter and music and we played games that weren’t played at any other time of year. There were stockings and presents but nothing extravagant and we weren’t disappointed.
Now in the schools, there are few decorations. There may be a picture of a Christmas tree or a stuffed Santa on a chair, but the teachers are frantically fitting in the creation of woven Kwanza mats or cardboard dreidls for Hanukah or Chinese lanterns for the Chinese New Year. While the tree, perhaps a hangover from the days when clippings of evergreen plants adorned peoples’ homes at the time of the longest day of the year, is tacitly banned. There may be a small tree on a teacher’s desk or on a desk in the office, but not a big sparkly tree dressed with children’s hand made ornaments.
As far as I’m concerned, the more holidays, the merrier and the more we come to understand other religions and customs the better, but please don’t tell me that we show respect for others’ customs, religions and holidays by banning our own. We show respect by sharing, learning and inviting others in.
My husband was tutoring an Afghani gentleman in English and one day, the gentleman’s wife stopped by with a cultural question. Her place of work was having a Christmas party and she wanted to know how that would play out. Was it religious? Should she bring presents or food? As a Muslim she had no problem attending a Christian event but she did not wish to do anything that might offend. She was relieved to find that these events are always secular in nature so there would be no complications of etiquette and that the organiser could answer the issues of gifts and food.
Many years (decades) ago when I knew very little about Judaism, my first husband and I were invited to a Bar Mitzvah in California. My husband found someone at work who was Jewish and did exactly what our Afghani friend did. We had no problem participating in such an important event in the Jewish religious life; we just wanted to be sure to be appropriately courteous and not to offend. Our only problem after that was figuring out an appropriate gift for a thirteen year old boy we didn’t know.
Living respectfully with other religions does not mean concealing the symbols, traditions and joys of our religion. It means welcoming all our friends to our festivities and when invited to theirs making sure we understand what their etiquette expects of us. So break out the trees and the carols and even tell the Christmas story. When I tell a First Nations’ creation myth, I am not proselytizing for that religion. Neither should you be when you tell the central story of any religion.
When Kwanza and Ramadan and Ashura and Eid al-Fitr and Diwali and Ranavami and Wesak and Hanukah and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Chinese New Year come round, tell those stories, too, and if someone from that faith is in your classroom ask her how to decorate the classroom appropriately. With luck a parent will help or even do the decorating and bring food. Never miss a chance to teach with all the senses.
Christmas cake, anyone?