Non-Christians treat Christmas with respect December 15, 1998

Many join secular celebration

Non-Christians treat Christmas with respect

By JAMES ELLIOTT -- The Spectator

"Joy to the world! the Lord is come;

Let earth receive her King.

Let every heart prepare him room,"

Isaac Watts' Psalm 98 is certainly one of the best-loved, best-known of all Christmas carols, a mainstay of both secular and sacred yule celebrations for more than 200 years.

Yet for a large number of Canadians the exhortation that every heart should prepare Him room has no currency whatsoever. For Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Baha'is, Christ's birth -- the font of all Christmas celebrations -- has little or no religious relevance.

For Muslims and Jews, there are obvious overlaps with Christianity because they share some common history, but the birth of Jesus is essentially little more than a sideshow.

Yet so pervasive have the commercial aspects of Christmas become -- the relentless marketing campaign upon which retailers depend -- that Christmas, secular Christmas at least, is now nearly impossible to avoid. The symbols and the sounds abound.

How do non-Christian religious minorities deal with Christmas?

For the most part, with a combination of good humour, tolerance and respect that, in many ways, could be a model for global religious harmony.

There are approximately 2,000 Hindu families in Hamilton-Wentworth and, over the Christmas holidays, Rama Singh says a sizable proportion of them will either hold or attend a Christmas party.

"Hindus believe every religion has a truth," says the McMaster university biology professor, "so they don't have this built-in feeling that if they love any aspect of another religion it is somehow against their own faith."

Because most Hindus come from a pluralistic society, they tend to embrace the secular aspects of the Christmas festival, he says, exchanging gifts and even buying a tree.

"They know very well they have their own festival, their own faith and do not seriously reflect on Christ," Singh says. Hindus instead participate in the festival as part of the community.

"I have never heard anyone complain that they're tired of Christmas."

Muslims, who venerate Christ, are perhaps closer to Christmas than most non-Christian religions, but, for a large percentage, the day itself is just another holiday.

"I mean, we enjoy the festivities," says Hamilton physician Ali Ghouse. "We like the lights, the gift giving and the goodwill of our neighbours, but we personally do not celebrate that as such."

The region's approximately 6,000 followers of Islam respond to the purely religious aspects of the season rather than the commercial, cultural side, Ghouse says.

"The differences (in our faiths) are in the details, but the belief in the principles are the same. The Christian belief about goodwill, loving your neighbour, all those things are exactly the same. So if people go to church, if they follow the message of Christ, that makes us happy."

There are probably fewer than 300 members of the Baha'i faith in the Hamilton area, but their small numbers do not keep them from sharing in the joy of the season.

Aghdas Jahvid of Flamborough says Baha'i "teaches that we are all one, one religion, a book with many chapters. We believe in all the religions of the past. Baha'u'llah (the messenger of God) says consort with all religions."

On Christmas Day, the Iranian-born Jahvid says she will take small gifts to her Christian friends.

On Christmas, many Jews will volunteer to work, says reform Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz of Temple Anshe Sholom, "to allow Christians to celebrate with their families.

"In terms of Jews and how they live their lives, the tradition is to go to the movies because there's not much else to do."

However, on December 25, when Christmas and the Jewish Shabbat coincide, Zeplowitz's sermon will be on a Jewish view of Jesus.

"I will remind Jews that Jesus was born a Jew, lived his whole life as a Jew and died as a Jew and much of what he was trying to say ... was what it meant to bring about the rule of God on earth. The kind of message he had might have some spiritual resonance for the liberal Jewish community."

Buddhism, which can claim about 500 adherents in Hamilton, counsels a practical approach to Christmas, treating it as a cultural custom of the predominant society.

Grant Ikuta, a Buddhist minister with a congregation drawn largely from Japanese Canadians, says, "one of the fundamental principles of Buddhism is called the Middle Path, the path of not going to extremes. Christ was a great religious figure and this is the celebration of his birthday.

"There's nothing wrong with recognizing that just because we're not Christians."

Ikuta says he tells his children, ages 6 and 4, it's all right to mark Christmas with a tree and an exchange of gifts, "just as we might have a birthday party for a friend of a different faith."


©Copyright 1998, Canoe Limited Partnership
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