[For Janaki Murali, a Hindu author and former journalist living in
Bangalore, Christmas is loved as much as Diwali.]
By Harriet Sherwood and Rachel Obordo
It’s impossible to escape. From early November, shops blare out Christmas music and hang baubles in their windows. It’s hard to spot a television or radio ad that doesn’t have a Christmas theme. People dressed as Santa shake buckets on street corners; public transport shuts down for 36 hours.
Christmas - the pre-eminent festival in the Christian calendar - is thrust in people’s faces of for a good two months of every year. But what about those of other faiths and of no faith? In the
of the population follow religions other than Christianity according to the 2011
census. And a study this year by the National Centre for Social Research found
that almost half have no religion.
We asked non-Christian readers in the
around the world to share their perspectives on Christmas. Here are some of the
For Janaki Murali, a Hindu author and former journalist living in
Christmas is loved as much as Diwali.
“I started celebrating Christmas when my children were younger, mainly to teach them that all faiths were equal. We would look for a Christmas tree, decorate it and get secret gifts for the children. I also used to bake a Christmas cake. Today I have figurines of Jesus and Mary I picked up in
in my Puja room along with a rosary that rests with my Tulsi prayer beads. My
children are all grown up now, but I know I taught them an important lesson
that they will carry with them forever. Perhaps they will add more faiths to
“Both Christmas and Diwali are popular ‘festivals’ with many people drawn to them due to their rich tradition and culture. My Christian friends mark Christmas with mass at church and the nativity scene in their homes. It’s the same with Diwali. Many people celebrate the four day festival of lights with fire crackers and lights in their homes, but the Hindus do the worship side of the festival - Lakshmi Puja. I think that celebrations from all faiths should be secularised. We should open them up for everyone to participate.”
lawyer, enjoys Christmas but wishes there was less commercialisation. “Christmas
for me is about celebration, thanks, reflection and, of course, presents!! I
always celebrate with the family. Usually with a tree, presents, turkey, stuffing,
yorkshire puds and almost always chipolatas wrapped in bacon! Despite being
Hindu and being raised in a Hindu family, we always celebrated Christmas as if
we were the most devout Christians! I have even been to Midnight Mass (which
was awesome!). Two years ago we went to a carol service on Christmas Eve which
was wonderful. Christmas is not about religion, in our family, it is about
family getting together, celebrating the end of the year and expressing thanks
for all that we have.”
Stephen, a 70-year-old professor from
doesn’t celebrate Christmas but recalls theJewish tradition of eating Chinese
foodthe night before. “Many American Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve and
this tradition continues where I live in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania Pennsylvania.
It’s hard to get a reservation in the local Chinese restaurants on that day.
“My wife Ruth is from
and is Jewish. We moved from London
to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania
in 1987. When Christmas came that year, I suggested that we honour the Jewish
tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve. I’m from New
York so I was very much used to this aspect of Jewish
culture. Ruth, being from London, thought
I was crazy. When she phoned the best of the local suburban Chinese restaurants
to book a table she was told that we were lucky to get the last reservation
available for Christmas Eve. When we arrived at the restaurant, Ruth was
surprised to find it completely full. I think up to that point she thought I
was engaging in some sort of elaborate joke.”
But why Chinese food? There’s a simple explanation - Chinese restaurants are usually the only ones open on Christmas.
As another reader explained: “Any type of restaurant typically run by individuals from non-Christian countries would do as long as there is a critical mass of Jewish or other non-Christian groups nearby to patronise it. My family has branched out to Indian because there is a nice Indian restaurant in the neighbourhood that takes reservations so we don’t have to stand on line for hours waiting for a table.
“There is also a strong tradition of Jewish groups or individuals volunteering on that day so Christian workers can have the day off, like serving a meal at a shelter. Personally, I always work on Christmas Eve so my Christian co-workers can take the day off.”
K Levy on the other hand simply enjoys the holiday spirit. Living in
she used to take her children to the Christian quarter of Haifa
to look at the Christmas trees and street decorations. “In one way we were
lucky, because the mild weather meant we could wander around and really enjoy
the atmosphere. On the other hand, it never seemed quite right without snow!”
Joanne, a druid pagan from Morecambe sees Christmas as a time for family, to have some breathing space from everyday life, spend time with those close to her and to make them wonderful food.
“Alban Arthan (which means ‘Light of Winter’) or Yule is the Druidic mid-winter festival. It falls only a few days before Christmas and is usually celebrated with a meal and gift-giving. On Christmas Day itself we do the whole Christmas dinner thing, open presents and of course watch Doctor Who. This weekend however I joined fellow druids in
for the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids(OBOD) winter gathering, to take some
time to reflect on the year and look forward to the next.”
Fifty-one-year-old potter Virginia Owl from
prefers Yule too over Christmas. “About 40 friends gather for a potluck and a
pagan ceremony that is a cheerful mix of group traditions and impromptu
improvements, though it always includes a mention of the longest night and how
important friendship and love are in getting us all through the dark cold days
ahead. There are candles and light in the dark, both symbolically and literally.
The core of this group has been meeting for more than 25 years and many of the
folks are closer to me than my biological family.” Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Archaeologist and Nordic pagan R D Savage from West Lindsey focuses on the dark pole of the year. “We all light fires to give ourselves courage in the dark, and feast and exchange gifts to affirm and cement the loving and joyous bonds that make us human in the face of the night.”
Born to a Christian mother and a Muslim father, 27-year-old student Rabea from
has always seen
Christmas as a time for family to come together and to share traditions. Berlin,
“As the daughter of a rather hybrid-religious family, Christmas was always fun and interesting as we tried to accommodate both sides. My entire family has religious views but were never hardcore on insisting we actually do religious things, so Christmas doesn’t mean to me that I am celebrating the birth of a (possibly fictitious) religious figure but rather spending a few days with my family, eating nice food, sitting together, exchanging presents, talking about the past year and the coming year and just enjoying the atmosphere of warmth. Though my sister and I are atheists, and our Christmases never included actual religious traditions, it was and still is a time of the year that we enjoy a lot.
“We mainly celebrate on Christmas Eve. My mother cooks dinner while the rest of the family is either in their rooms or out for a walk. Eventually, after everyone is dressed up and showered, we have dinner in the kitchen together (very Americanised dinner: turkey, potato dishes, vegetables etc), drink some mulled wine and then enter the living room where we sit down, sing a few carols (this may be the only religious aspect since many German carols are religious-themed) and then exchange presents before we sit together and just talk. Christmas Day is then the big celebration with the extended family and everyone comes together at one house or flat (we usually rotate every year) and we have lunch together, play a few games, exchange some more small presents and then have cake and cookies in the afternoon.
“In a general wider sense I think we should open Christmas to more traditions and people. I live in an area where many migrants live in
of course, many of them do not care for Christmas because they think of it as a
religious celebration. But I have talked to and encountered many (not only) Muslims
who very much enjoy Christmas lights or the Christmas market and even have a
Christmas tree in their living room.
“It’s been a long time since Christmas has been about religion and why should it be? One can celebrate without having to celebrate the birth of Jesus or go to church by just enjoying everything else that comes with it. I do. That said, of course, people who celebrate it for religious reasons should not be shamed for that either. It is an important part of their identity. As long as no one is bringing harm to anyone else, everyone should be free to celebrate Christmas as they wish and whether they want to or not.”
As a rationalist and atheist, Tony Green from
Ipswich tries to avoid Christmas as much as
Samples from Tony’s special fridge full of carefully-aged beers Photograph: Tony Green
“It’s not just the religious mumbo-jumbo I dislike but also all the associated bullshit and worship of materialism. So I do my best to make Christmas day as much like any other day as is possible. Fortunately I’m a single man living alone so at least I don’t have the pressure to conform that others might suffer. And after many years I’ve trained my friends to realise that however well-meaning their invitations are, I really don’t want to share in the compulsory but fake bonhomie of their celebrations. Obviously my normal night out at the pub isn’t possible and most radio on the day is unadulterated drivel (the totally awful rubbish people will put up with just because a record is a ‘Christmas record’ never ceases to amaze me) so I can’t have a completely normal day. But I do my best.
“If the weather’s ok I’ll probably go out for a bike ride (nice quiet roads, but watch out for the ‘it’s only a large glass of sherry’ brigade). I’ll dip into the radio selectively for the few normal programmes worth listening to, including a few news programmes in the hope that they actually have some real news rather than the predictable ‘Queen said X’, ‘Pope said Y’ stuff. I’ll listen to some timeshifted programmes from previous days and do a bit of work on my computer and finish off the evening with a few bottles of Belgian beer before retiring to bed relieved that the most boring day of the year is past again.
“The funny thing is, the vehemence with which so many people are keen to try and insult me for failing to conform (so predictable with the unimaginative ‘bah humbug’) that I can’t help being reminded of the way closet gays are often the worst homophobes - could it be that a lot of people would secretly like to rein back on the festivities but daren’t admit it because they’re scared of what other people will say? And seeing someone who can ignore it all just reminds them of their own moral cowardice?”
Anne Bynon from
is a Buddhist
who treats Christmas as any other day of the year. Brisbane,
“My childhood was a bit like an Edwardian boarding school. My family hasn’t done Christmas for years. The whole Christmas stress, build up and celebration just goes past me. It’s something that happens around me but I’m not part of it. We don’t have a Christmas tree, no decorations, no cards, no presents. On Christmas Day I get together with my parents and go out for lunch. My siblings are not in contact. My parents like to go home around for a nap, so the rest of the day is just like any other day at home alone. I always watch the Doctor Who Christmas special and usually catch the Queen’s Message. I have pillars of books to read.
“If you tell people the truth about what you’re doing they say ‘you poor thing’. There’s an assumption that you have to have a big Christmas and if you spend it any other way you are pitied. I don’t feel part of the Christmas madness and tension that people get involved with when it comes to shopping. People are so on edge and always arguing. I see it everywhere but I don’t feel a part of it. It washes over me. We all have choices and you don’t have to choose to celebrate. We should just give money to charity.”
Kamran Younas, a 37-year-old
accountant, explained why Muslims recognise Christmas. “Many mosques will hold
lectures and gatherings to remember Jesus and to learn from his teachings. During
the Christmas days off, we will get together with families and friends, enjoy
the time off, feast and remember God. I’d like Christmas to be disassociated
from excessive shopping and materialism, and for lessons from Jesus’ life to be
brought out and applied to the problems of today’s society.”
“On Christmas day, my whole family gets together for Christmas lunch or dinner. We don’t exchange gifts as we do that on Eid anyway, but enjoy the day with the family,” says 30-year-old teacher, Hamida Dewan from
Surrey. “I wouldn’t want to
change anything. Christmas is a religious festival that has a lot meaning for
Christians. The way it is, is what makes it Christmas.”
doesn’t celebrate Christmas either. “I like to send to my Christian friends
abroad cards or to buy the ones in the country small presents specific to
Christmas. It’s all about respect and empathy.”