Offensive? Christmas Is a Multicultural Holiday

Every year, there are isolated incidents in the War on Christmas, and nearly half of Americans think store greeters should say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” as if the latter would be offensive. But even if the phrase does offend some, Christmas already is a multicultural holiday.

Many think of Christmas as Christian, and therefore offensive to non-Christians, but a vast majority of non-Christian Americans celebrate the holiday. Eighty-one percent of them make merry at Yuletide, according to a Pew Research survey from 2013.

In fact, less than half of Americans who celebrate Christmas (43 percent) consider it a “strongly religious” holiday, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. A majority (56 percent) say Christmas is “somewhat religious” or “not too religious.”

Here are 5 different non-Christian groups that celebrate Christmas.

1. Muslims.

Surprising, right? Yes, many Muslims across America celebrate Christmas, and for many it’s religious.

“Jesus (peace be upon him) is one of the highest messengers and prophets, miraculously born to the Virgin Mary, and chosen by God to be the Messiah who will return to establish justice on Earth after it has been filled with injustice,” Imam Omar Suleiman, the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, told The Huffington Post.

Muslims believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that Mary “occupies the highest position of any woman in Islam,” Suleiman said. The Quran describes her as “chosen above the woman of all worlds as an example of perfection, devotion and modesty for men or women.” In fact, an entire chapter of the Muslim holy book is named after her.

While Muslims do not believe Jesus is the Son of God, they do consider him “the Messiah.” He was not only the messenger of God on Earth, but he will return to establish justice.

For these and other cultural reasons, many celebrate the 25th of December.

Aasif Mandvi, a Muslim actor and writer known for Spider Man 2 (2004) and The Dictator (2012), told The Huffington Post he was “a great Christmas caroler.” In a refreshing burst of politically incorrect humor, he jokingly warned that if you screw up his harmony in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” he was “likely to start a holy war!” He even called Christmas “the best holiday!”

2. Buddhists.

According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of Buddhists celebrate Christmas.

American Buddhist Alan Peto explained why some Buddhists celebrate Jesus’ birth:

We believe Jesus was what those in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition call a “Bodhisattva”. A Bodhisattva is one that forgoes their own benefit to help others and has compassion, kindness and love for all beings. Jesus definitely helped others in way we still experience today by showing the world immense compassion, love, kindness, and beauty and hot to incorporate that into their lives and help others. So for Buddhists, we can see Jesus as a blessing to this Earth.

Not all Buddhists would celebrate Jesus in this way, but with Christmas as a cultural holiday, many American Buddhists celebrate it without religious reasons, as well.

3. Hindus.

A vast majority of American Hindus (73 percent) also celebrate Christmas.

Rudri Patel, a Hindu mother who observes her religion’s Diwali Festival of Lights around the same time as Christmas every year, told The Washington Post that she wants her daughter to grow up with the values of “tolerance, assimilation and connection.”

“Year after year, we send out Christmas cards celebrating the joy of the season and attend holiday parties,” Patel wrote. “As my parents taught me, I want my daughter to understand that identifying with one religion doesn’t mean she can’t embrace the traditions of another faith.”

This celebration of another faith’s holiday — on its own religious terms — in order to expand a family’s religious horizons is likely rather unique. Most American Hindus probably celebrate Christmas as cultural and not religious, because they are Hindu and not Christian.

4. Jews.

About a third of Jews (32 percent) said they had a Christmas tree in their home in 2012, according to a 2013 Pew Research survey. Twenty-seven percent of religiously observant Jews had a Christmas tree, while 51 percent of non-religious Jews did so.

Seventy-one percent of Jews married to non-Jews reported putting up a Christmas tree in 2012, and younger Jews were more likely to do so.

Not surprisingly, however, very few Orthodox Jews (and only about 1 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews) erected a Christmas tree in their houses four years ago.

While many Jews may set up a Christmas tree, only 15 percent of American Jews reported attending a non-Jewish religious service throughout the year.

5. “Nones.”

In recent years, many outlets have emphasized the growth of a surprising religious group — the “nones” or the unaffiliated. Many Americans are agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular.”

There are many reasons why Americans are rejecting religion, and there is much religious believers can learn from their reasons. But while these people reject religion, they haven’t all become Scrooges. In fact 87 percent of them told the Pew Research Center that they celebrate Christmas.

“Christians don’t own December,” Hemant Mehta, a Chicago-area former math teacher who writes for The Friendly Atheist, told CNN. “Even if Christmas as a Christian holiday didn’t exist right now, I know there would be plenty of reason that it makes sense to take a couple weeks off at the end of the year, when the weather isn’t great, when everyone kind of needs a break from work.”

“This is a nice way to just relax and spend time with your family,” Mehta explained. “If it coincides with the majority’s religious holiday, great.” Mehta reportedly loves getting together with family and friends, giving gifts, and erecting a Christmas tree.

So why the “War on Christmas”? Since so many Americans — both Christian and non-Christian — celebrate the holiday, why do some people think the greeting “Merry Christmas!” is offensive?

Despite the many non-Christians who celebrate Christmas, the holiday still involves celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians consider the Son of God. To non-Messianic Jews and to Muslims, this idea is blasphemous, and to atheists and agnostics is it nonsense.

Perhaps even stranger, there are some Christians — Messianic Jews — who do not celebrate Christmas, but Hanukkah instead. And many Christians get offended at the over-commercialization of Christmas, especially if they celebrate Advent as a period of waiting, not premature celebration.

Many Americans consider the holiday merely cultural, but some cannot escape its religious nature.

Hence the push to ban a “Charlie Brown Christmas” poster at a school in Killeen, Texas. Hence the ACLU lawsuit forcing an Indiana town to remove the traditional cross atop its Christmas tree. Hence University of Virginia students signing a petition to outlaw Christmas. Heck, the War on Christmas has even caused a stir in Germany, after a German-funded school in Turkey effectively banned Christmas.

Even though a vast majority of Americans celebrate Christmas, many will still be offended by the holiday. While it is important to keep that in mind — don’t greet your Jewish friends with “Merry Christmas!” for instance — it should not be something to get offended about. Compulsory joy can be stifling, and those who celebrate Christmas should be kind to those who don’t.

At the same time, Americans in general need to learn not to take offense at everything. If you do not celebrate Christmas, is it really that offensive to see a cross atop a Christmas tree, or to see a Christmas poster?

Whether Christmas or the War on Christmas is more likely to offend you, the holidays are a perfect time to be more charitable to one another. Tolerance and neighborliness go both ways.