Bahá'ís At Christmas
In countries where Christianity is the majority religion, Christmas dominates the month of December. Ostensibly dedicated to celebrating the birth of Jesus, it is meant to be a joyous time, a season of "peace on Earth, goodwill toward men." And to some extent, it is. Family gatherings, gift-giving, bright decorations and special treats characterize this time of year. Yet most of the Christmas season is focused on gifts, and not always in a positive way. Spend any time in shopping malls in December and you'll soon realize that the "Christmas spirit" is generally conspicuous by its absence. Many could wish for an excuse to opt out of Christmas, or at least this part of it!
Of course, some people do have such an excuse. Those of us who are not Christian are under no obligation to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Even Bahá'ís, who accept Jesus as a divine Messenger and hold Him in the greatest reverence, do not celebrate Christmas as a Holy Day. Indeed, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice have both discouraged the celebration of Christmas within Bahá'í families. Such families should focus instead on celebrating the Bahá'í Holy Days. At the same time, because of the reverence with which we hold Jesus, there is no reason why we can't accept the invitation to celebrate Christmas with our Christian family and friends, nor is there any reason why we should not invite them to join us in celebrating our Holy Days.
Given that, how do Bahá'ís view the Christmas season, and how do they deal with being members of a minority awash in the trappings of a holiday season they do not personally celebrate? Recently I asked subscribers to my newsletter and participants in the Bahá'í Faith Forum to share their thoughts and experiences. Although this was not a scientific survey, some interesting things came to light. (Note: "The forum" in this article is the old About forum, not the present Planet Bahá'í forum.)
1. The Christmas Spirit
Christmas for us has always been about family and giving gifts. It isn't really anything more than a very nice tradition. I can't remember the last time I actually attached any religious significance to the holiday. --Mike
If I were a Christian celebrating the holiday religiously, I probably wouldn't even do the Christmas tree and presents, as I don't think these properly symbolize the religious message. I would probably relegate those parts of Christmas to the cultural celebration, and make sure my children knew that's all it was. --CB (from an email)
There seemed to be two different views of what Christmas is in the modern age. A number of Bahá'ís told me that even before they were Bahá'í, they celebrated Christmas as a cultural holiday rather than a religious Holy Day. Some noted that even in the wider culture Christmas has lost most of its religious significance, while others pointed out that a large number of Christmas traditions have their origins not in Christianity but in Roman and pagan celebrations. Thus, to the extent that these Bahá'ís do celebrate Christmas, they don't necessarily see their celebration in religious terms. Yet they do seem to find spiritual value in festivities associated with the winter solstice generally, where family and joy are celebrated. As Candace said in the Forum:
I think that for many, many years, even after we decide to stop cutting down trees for Christmas, there will be lights in the windows through December and January. It would be just too hard to live through those months without them.
On the other hand, some Bahá'ís were adamant in pointing out that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, a Messenger of God, and as such should be celebrated in a manner befitting Him. Perhaps one of the best statements I've seen of this view was that posted in our Forum by PoorRichard, who said,
The spirit of Christmas is Christ's spirit of peace, joy and all those things which uplift and bring humankind together. We shy away from gifts but when we do exchange them, they are something small and spiritual. And yes, we celebrate Christmas in the Bahá'í Spirit. "Joy to the world, the Lord is come!" What a beautiful and spiritual song that is. We wish all this spiritual blessing.
2. Christmas In Practice
Although the celebration of Christmas within Bahá'í families has been discouraged, it appears that many who came from Christian backgrounds still trot out at least some of the trappings of Christmas each year. There often is a transition period during which some aspects of the season remain. For example, in my family, Kathy and the kids and I continued to exchange gifts with each other after Kathy became a Bahá'í in 1981, but we stopped in 1983, the year I became a Bahá'í. Even so, we continued to put up a tree for a few years after that, and exchanged gifts with some of our Christian family for the next decade. It has only been in the past five years that we stopped giving Christmas gifts at all and instead began to give Ayyám-i-Há gifts to everyone. We still receive gifts at Christmas, and up until now have continued to send out cards. On Christmas day, in place of any major celebration, we simply have a fun day off with the family, and mark the birth of Jesus by reading from the Gospels.
Many seem to take a similar approach, but others have continued to exchange gifts within their immediate families and a large majority are still very much engaged in traditional celebrations with their Christian extended families. For most, this doesn't appear to pose any problem at all, and indeed seems to be an important part of their lives at this time of year. For example, Duane, one of our Forum Hosts, had this to say:
I still enjoy getting presents, and my Mom gives my son plenty of stuff. Our son doesn't get presents from us at Christmas, but at Ayyám-i-Há. We also give our family presents. We like to go see light displays. Might as well enjoy what's available! My wife and I love to watch A Christmas Carol, which is a timeless classic. We watch the Grinch stealing Christmas every year, and have the songs about memorized.
Overall, the Bahá'í celebration of Christmas seems to involve sharing the day with family, exchanging gifts with Christian relatives, and enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the season.
3. The Dark Side
Whether to give gifts, and to whom is something we all consider about Christmas. We exchange gifts with our relatives, and my wife is still driven crazy from buying gifts. Our relatives expect gifts from us, and expect us to receive gifts. --Duane
Even when I tried to draw them out, few Bahá'ís would admit to experiencing a "dark side" to belonging to a minority religion at Christmastime. This isn't surprising, since on the whole Bahá'ís try to look on the positive side. This goes with their mission to build unity between all peoples. Yet a few comments seemed to hint that such a dark side might be present, primarily in the form of peer pressure. Duane wasn't the only one who noted that relatives "expected" gifts.
Mike, another Forum participant, noted another form of pressure, one which must cause parents in many minority religions to cringe each year:
Our daughters understand that we are not Christian and that as Bahá'ís we have Holy Days that are different from those the Christians observe. But just try to tell a 4-year-old with a pout that can melt even the hardest of hearts that she cannot have presents for Christmas, like the rest of her friends will get! :)
The smiley notwithstanding, this can pose problems for non-Christian parents who wish to distance themselves from the materialism of the season. Interestingly enough, our children never had any problem with the transition, but perhaps that was because even though we didn't exchange gifts ourselves, we still did exchange gifts with some of our relatives. And of course, we always made a big deal out of Ayyám-i-Há!
4. The Ghost of Christmas Future
For Bahá'ís, the dilemma of Christmas is not only one of being non-Christian in a Christian-dominated land. We might find it easy to downplay Christmas if we played up the November holidays (the Birth of Bahá'u'lláh, the Day of the Covenant, and the Ascension of 'Abdu'l-Bahá) and Ayyám-i-Há in February. Unfortunately, at this early stage in the history of our religion, customs and traditions have not yet formed and, indeed, Shoghi Effendi discouraged the formalization of customs and traditions until a distinctive Bahá'í culture begins to emerge.
So unlike Jews or Moslems or others who have a strong tradition of religious holidays to fall back on, Bahá'ís may feel left out. As Duane noted, it is easy to spend more time celebrating the birth of Christ than the birth of Bahá'u'lláh, simply because the former pervades the whole month of December, while the latter is just one day in November.
But that doesn't mean Bahá'ís aren't aware of the issue and working to do something about it. When they talked about this issue, many seemed to echo this comment Candace made in the Forum:
(Note: We seem to have lost this comment somewhere along the line. Sorry about that! --Dale)
Another Forum participant, NetCourt, noted a specific instance of the transfer of customs from one holiday to another:
Some of the things that were fun we have carried over like letting the kids hunt for candy on Náw-Rúz.
In our family, we moved the Christmas stocking idea to Ayyám-i-Há as a fun way for the kids to get a number of smaller gifts in addition to the main gifts. We don't, however, use actual stockings; just pretty gift bags. Incidentally, our own tradition with regard to gifts is to give one to each person for each day of Ayyám-i-Há. That means in most years we each get four gifts, but in leap years we get five.
Of course, more and more the emphasis for Bahá'ís needs to be on creating meaningful, joyous celebrations centered on the Holy Days specific to our religion. We are incredibly blessed with not just a few but eleven days each year out of which we can make a really big deal. Three of these are of a more solemn nature (the Ascension of Bahá'u'lláh, the Martyrdom of the Báb, and the Ascension of 'Abdu'l-Bahá), but the remainder are joyous occasions when friends, families and indeed communities can come together to rejoice in the wondrous gifts of God.
Each one of those days could be, in spirit, another Christmas!
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