During the period when one of our two foster children was with us, he attended an elementary school near our home. He had the same teacher for two years in a row. With students from various religious backgrounds, this teacher taught her students on how to be respectful of other religions. She brought in parents of all religious backgrounds to run educational activities throughout the year.
For example, I was brought in as a representative of the Islamic faith during the month of Ramadan. I explained why Muslims fasted during daylight hours and broke fast at sunset. The 6- and 7-year-old students turned out to be more interested in the mini baklava desserts that I brought on that day rather than on the meaning of fasting. To top off this fun experience, I offered to write each student’s name in Arabic on a piece of white paper.
On another occasion, the parent of a Jewish student was brought in and told the class about Hanukkah or the Festival of Lights, which is celebrated by lighting a candle on a menorah for each of eight successive nights. Our foster child brought home a menorah that he had assembled in class and proceeded to light a candle each night. When my puzzled wife asked him whether he understood that he was celebrating a Jewish tradition, he simply replied: “Yes, I know. But it is cool.”
We related this story to an interfaith couple who were friends of ours. She was Christian and her husband Jewish. She laughed when she heard the story of the menorah. She related that her son, who was in the same class as our foster child, brought home his name written in Arabic and taped it to his bedroom door. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all had the openness of a child?
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In previous years, my wife, who was raised in the Presbyterian Church, used to put up a Christmas tree in our home. I would help carry it into the home and wrap lights around it. She would then carefully adorn the tree with Christmas ornaments that had special meaning or memories. We stopped this tradition a few years ago when we acquired a Bengal cat. We found out the cat loved this tradition too and made every effort to climb the tree and bat down all of the ornaments, which my wife had carefully placed on the tree branches.
Some holidays can be stressful if there are expectations of elaborate dinners and financial expenditures. On the one hand, Christmas has been over-commercialized in recent years and many households get in debt after the holidays. On the other hand, one cannot be a tightwad and deprive his or her family of some joy and festivity during this holiday. A narration from the prophet reports he said that an ignorant but generous person is more beloved to God than a stingy scholar.
We should also use holidays as teaching moments for our children. We need to teach them that there is joy in giving and not just in receiving. About five years ago, members of the Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, the LDS Church and the Islamic Center of Boise came together and met on Christmas Eve to serve and feed the homeless at Interfaith Sanctuary. I usually bring some international students with me on that day but I have been most impressed by whole families who bring their children to initiate them in giving to others, especially to those most vulnerable in our society.
During the holiday season, remember to be generous with your family, your neighbors and even the stranger. Holidays are a festive time meant to bring people together, to be open to learning about other people’s religious traditions, to reconcile between people, to reach out to those in need, and to make a resolution not to repeat old mistakes.
I chuckle at those who say let us bring back “Merry Christmas” and do away with “Happy Holidays” which is more inclusive and reflective of the diversity of religions in this country. I would like to remind people that there are currently several holidays being celebrated. For example, Hanukkah started Dec. 12 this year and ended Dec. 20. Christmas will be Dec. 25. Kwanzaa, a celebration which honors the African heritage of African Americans will start Dec. 26 and end Jan. 1, when New Year’s Day will also be celebrated.
Personally, I do not get offended when people wish me a “Merry Christmas.” I always return their greeting because I know that, deep down, they are wanting to connect with me and share in their joy and happiness of these moments. I will go one step further and wish everyone a “Happy Hanukkah,” a “Merry Christmas, a “Happy Kwanzaa,” and a “Happy New Year 2018.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we affirmed holidays other than our own and connected with other holiday traditions? Be open to it all.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.