As the song goes, it’s the most magical time of the year. A time when families get together, enjoy quality moments at home, and delight in an array of visual and palatable treats. Having lived in the United States for over a decade, I’m glad to be in a country which values this time of the year just as much as the one I grew up in: the United Kingdom. One thing however that always makes me pause and think, and bewildered me a little when I first arrived in the United States, is that Christmas is very much viewed essentially from a religious standpoint in America—one that is celebrated primarily by those who officially call themselves Christians—usually to the exclusion of other religions and backgrounds. I’ve met people from lots of different faiths, who’ve told me that they don’t celebrate Christmas because growing up in America they felt that somehow Christmas wasn’t for them.
Having grown up myself just outside London, one of the most diverse cities in the world, the atmosphere in the United Kingdom is always one of Christmas being for everyone. All colors, creeds and religions are encouraged, and do, celebrate it. Everyone heartily wishes each other a “Merry Christmas”, and unlike here, there’s no “Happy Holidays”! It’s only ever about it being Christmas time. People who are not technically Christian still have Christmas trees, presents, and a hearty dinner with family and friends. The annual Christmas work party (never a “Holiday Party”) is an event everyone participates in and looks forward to. In other words, the entire country joins in the fun and festivities, while not forgetting the fundamental message of Christmas as a time of giving and kindness. In this way, the season of goodwill helps bring the whole nation together.
As someone who is from a Hindu and Northern Indian background, I grew up around people of all faiths who enjoyed this time of year. Although I went to a Church of England school, and admittedly probably know more about Christianity than Hinduism (I probably shouldn’t admit that)—my experiences are not unique to people like myself, and I know people from a wide variety cultural backgrounds and upbringings in the United Kingdom.
I find it somewhat disappointing when I turn on the television news this time of year in America and hear the annual banter and perceived controversy over whether people should be wishing each other a Merry Christmas or not. Perhaps some of this debate relates to the unique secular founding of the United States. I know my parents moved to England to embrace the culture and assimilate—and are entirely comfortable living in a country that defines itself as Christian, very much wanting to join in with all the local celebrations and traditions.
Over my years in the United States, I’ve regularly encountered patients and hospital staff who have looked at me, said “Merry…”, and then sensing that I may not be a Christian, change the sentence to “Happy Holidays”. I always instantly reply “Merry Christmas!”. I’m actually more offended that they didn’t feel able to wish me one. By the same token, hospitals and large organizations will only ever send out “Happy Holiday” emails and cards, for fear of offending anyone with use of the word Christmas (which in reality is the festival that everyone is celebrating and nobody is ever offended with hearing about!).
And here lies the great dichotomy of the United States, a country that has so many wonderful things going for it and attracts eager immigrants from all over the world. Sometimes when we are too careful to avoid any perception of religious identity, and dare I say, become too politically correct, we actually inadvertently produce more division and isolation. That certainly shouldn’t be the case in America, a country that is otherwise well known for its emphasis on cultural assimilation.
I hope that in the future, the United States continues to be proud of its founding culture, traditions and Christian roots. Everyone coming to this country should be encouraged to maintain and continue them for future generations.
On that note, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone for reading my articles this year and wish you all a Very Merry Christmas!