As the holiday season approaches, I can’t help but reflect on my experiences regarding this time, which for many of us means enjoying a break from work, school and other obligations. As a child, I associated the holiday season with Christmas. While I did not understand the religious reason for Christmas, I could always feel the aura of festivity, positive spirit and joy around me. When we decorated a small Christmas tree in our house and put gifts beneath it, I did not understand why — all I knew was that I was going to receive gifts, wrap them for others, sing at the elementary holiday-sing-along and decorate cookies. However, as I got older and began to question the religious basis for Christmas, I realized that its purpose was to celebrate the birth of Jesus, which holds tremendous religious significance for Christians.
As a result of questioning the religious basis for Christmas, I began to investigate the religious significance of holidays celebrated in my own faith of Sikhi. While in Sikhi, there is not one day deemed holier or momentous than any other, there are days that have historical significance based on events that defined and shaped Sikhi. I asked my parents about Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s Gurpurab (the celebration of the Sikh founder Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s birthday) which is typically celebrated in the second half of November. My parents described the Gurpurab of Guru Nanak as being a day to remember Guru Nanak’s teachings—the three pillars of Sikhi and the message of Ik Onkar (the power of the oneness that holds all creatures on Earth together). Similarly, I learned that the week of Christmas is actually a time of somber remembrance for Sikhs as they remember the martyrdom of the two younger Sahibzadas (two of the four sons of the last Sikh Guru – Guru Gobind Singh Ji) who were bricked alive for refusing to give up Sikhi. During this time of curiosity, I also explored the meaning and religious significance of other holidays that are commonly celebrated in December such as Hanukkah. By listening to my Jewish peers, I have learned that Hanukkah is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas (which I believed for so long) and is actually considered to be a minor holiday within the Jewish faith.
Ultimately, learning about the reasons behind religious celebrations in Sikhi led me to appreciate them to a higher degree. Despite this, I struggled to understand how to celebrate Christmas, a joyous occasion, while also acknowledging the remembrance of a somber and heavy time period critical to Sikhi’s history. At this point, I questioned how Christmas fit into my religious journey. Christianity was not the religion that my family followed, so is it right for me to enjoy the accompanying festivities related to Christmas without acknowledging its religious aspect? I often sign emails with “Merry Christmas” during the holiday season, and now I wonder whether the recipients even celebrate Christmas.
Ultimately, I am still at an impasse with these questions; nevertheless, I find myself appreciating other religious traditions that are not my own. Understanding and respecting traditions of all faiths is a step towards peace and mutual understanding. And my new-found appreciation guides how I celebrate Christmas with my family. While we do not go to Christmas mass or celebrate the birth of Jesus, I have a great appreciation for the religious significance as it is important to many of my Christian peers. Furthermore, I am also able to partake in other aspects of the holiday season such as the spirit of giving.
Have you struggled with how to celebrate religious holidays outside of your tradition, such as Christmas, or even holidays within your own belief system? How have you addressed this?