Friday, December 25, 2009

December Dilemma

The New York Times recently had several people offer commentary on "The Truth About Santa", sharing their views on when they think children should hear that Santa isn't "real". As a Baha'i dad who has no intention of teaching his child to believe in Santa, it was fascinating to see how others viewed this as an important issue, a dilemma if you will. Those of us who do not have a major holiday that falls in December face some dilemmas of our own, or at least this is how put it recently. Check it out:

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- As Christmas season went into full swing this year, Glen Fullmer's 7-year-old son came home from school with an assignment: Make a poster illustrating his family holiday traditions.

The boy wasn't sure how to proceed because he and his family are Baha'is, not Christians, and they have no holidays during the Christmas season.

Thus, Fullmer encountered the "December Dilemma" -- the term used for the quandaries and anxieties non-Christians and interfaith couples face during Christmas season.

Fullmer, a Baha'i faith spokesman who lives in Evanston, Illinois, said he saw the poster assignment as a "teachable moment" for his 4-, 7- and 10-year-old sons who associated holiday traditions with Christmas.

He reminded his boys that Baha'is have a gift-giving and charity period in February called Ayyam-i-Ha, a stretch of time not unlike the Christmas season.

And he helped his son design the poster about that holiday, which precedes a fasting period and then the Baha'i New Year in March.

"His classmates asked him questions about the holiday, and one of his friends came up to him and wants to celebrate that holiday," Fullmer said, pleased that his son's peers helped him reaffirm his identity. (Read the whole thing here)

Robert Stockman offers some additional commentary on the variety of ways that Baha'i's navigate the December holiday season, while the U.S. Baha'i website has a great piece with several Baha'is sharing how their families approach this time of year.

Our Baha'i family will be joining my parents, sister and niece in a few hours for the Christmas holiday. Since I was a child sharing this time with them has always been a source of happiness, gratitude, and fun. Since I've become a Baha'i, it has taken on new spiritual significance both in its relationship to the birth of Jesus and as an enactment of the centrality of family life to civilization.

Within the broader social context however, Christmas evokes a bit of ambivalence, especially now that I'm a parent. I find it increasingly important to balance promoting unity among family, friends, and neighbors with asserting the independent nature of my faith. One of the most common misconceptions of the Baha'i Faith is that it is some mish-mash or imitator of other religions. The implication, however politely stated, is that the Baha'i Faith is not a "real" religion, like say Christianity or Judaism. It's taken me a few years to wrap my ahead around how to respond to the "do you celebrate Christmas?" question. Now, I generally say no, but that I join my family members who do celebrate it and talk about the fact that Baha'is have our own gift-giving holiday in February.

As a Baha'i parent, I want my child to understand that we participate in Christmas because we love our relatives, not because our own holidays are not good enough, or we need to "fit in" or seek the acceptance or approval of others. Our religion is very "real" and really awesome.

As for the Santa issue, my most recent thought, inspired by a piece on NPR about "secret Santas", is that he is a wonderful symbol of virtues that are important to instill in my child such as generosity. Generosity is a quality emphasized in the Baha'i Writings and which Baha'u'llah exemplified in His own Life:

"Until His father passed away, Bahá'u'lláh did not seek position or political station notwithstanding His connection with the government. This occasioned surprise and comment. It was frequently said, "How is it that a young man of such keen intelligence and subtle perception does not seek lucrative appointments? As a matter of fact, every position is open to him." This is an historical statement fully attested by the people of Persia. He was most generous, giving abundantly to the poor. None who came to Him were turned away. The doors of His house were open to all. He always had many guests. This unbounded generosity was conducive to greater astonishment from the fact that He sought neither position nor prominence. In commenting upon this His friends said He would become impoverished, for His expenses were many and His wealth becoming more and more limited. "Why is he not thinking of his own affairs?" they inquired of each other; but some who were wise declared, "This personage is connected with another world; he has something sublime within him that is not evident now; the day is coming when it will be manifested." In truth, the Blessed Perfection (Baha'u'llah) was a refuge for every weak one, a shelter for every fearing one, kind to every indigent one, lenient and loving to all creatures." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 25)

Santa as a symbol of generosity is something I can wholeheartedly embrace without teaching my child that he is a real person.

I'd be interested to hear from other people who don't have December holidays. How do you handle the December dilemma? Is it a dilemma for you at all?


  1. Hi Phillipe,
    Great questions! I absolutely adore Christmas. To me it is the response of humankind to the coming of a Manifestation. I love the messages of the Christmas songs and I love the lights and decorations. Last night I heard a Catholic priest deliver a sermon about how God does not leave us alone and he sends messengers to help us, finally culminating in sending His own Son, it was so close to the Baha'i message. If I did not celebrate Christmas, I would truly miss it.

    If I had children, I might rethink how I celebrate the holiday. I would imagine I would incorporate some celebration. Since we live in a culture with a high amount of Christians I think it's appropriate to participate if one wants to. But I would be conscious of not wanting to give a mixed message. Looking forward to hearing what your readers say....

  2. Anonymous9:52 PM

    Hi Phillip,

    Early on I explained to our DD that Santa was "grown up pretend." As a mother I have found it important to help my kids distinguish the range of reality through fantasy, as well as qualify the fantasy as their own (appropriate) or other's (questionable.) This is important to me so that the line between truth and untruth (untruth doesn't have to be a lie), teasing playful (untruth) and teasing mean, something that requires bravery (an operation) vs. inspiring adrenaline (scary movie) is easier for my kids to be able to navigate and make a knowledgeable distinction, basing their choices accordingly. Also, in appreciation of the virtue of truthfulness we did the best we could, age appropriately of course.

    What we have told them: Santa is grownup pretend. Sometimes grownups know that something is pretend, but don't know how to act like it is pretend and behave as though it is real. When you get a present from Santa, your (grandparents) are the ones giving you a gift. You can pretend with them if you like, but you can also say "thank you Santa"--either way you are helping them celebrate Christmas. (Friends of ours in Bermuda coined the phrase "helping family celebrate Christmas" and it is so lovely and fit in with what we do so nicely that it is now what our kids say to everyone about our practice of Christmas.) All the messengers are from God and if some year you would like to celebrate the Holy Days from each Revelation, we will do our best to have lovely celebrations.

    Our approach to Christmas is to read from the Bible as our own little family before getting together with the rest of the family, so that we are not showing disrespect to His Holiness Jesus. We say prayers for Him and humanity, and read the story of His birth and sing "on the day that Jesus was born" with the melody of Red Grammer's.

    The kids LOVE that their grandparents are the ones puling off pretending to be Santa because pretend play between the generations does not happen a whole bunch. It definitely has a role, but we make sure that they know that Santa IS NOT Jesus, and that the important part about the purpose behind the idea of Santa is generosity, and valuing other's happiness and joy.

    They also know that other families for reasons of their own, like their kids to think that Santa is real. We have taken them hypothetically through the process of discovering something you believed wasn't actually true and what that discovery can feel like, and that we don't have to be the ones to offer an alternative perception as there are all sorts of differences that work for different families.

    Thanks! Hope everyone finds creative and fun wasy that work for their families.


  3. That's a tough one. I was raised Catholic, but I'm now an Agnostic Humanist who attends a Unitarian Congregation. I've decided that I don't want to lie to my kids about the whole Santa thing, because I don't see the point in it. My parents would spend $x on me with their named signed in the "From" section, and then spend another $x on gifts "From Santa." as if they couldn't take credit for all of it.

    In order for my children to understand the importance of giving and receiving, I think it's important to validate the giver, and to lessen the sense of entitlement that surrounds Christmas.

    However, this leads to a problem. If I don't teach my kids to believe in Santa, will I teach them to believe in the tooth fairy?

  4. Thanks for everyone who has responded to the post so far. These are complex issues without easy answers. I don't think that there is any one way to go about it and appreciate hearing different approaches.

    What about other people? How do you approach the "December Dilemma"?

  5. Thanks so much for this post! I'm a relatively new Bahai from a very traditional Christian family...I live away from my family, but came to spend Christmas with my sister and mom in Florida. My mom insisted that we go to midnight mass. I took comfort in the tradition I spent most my life doing and was joyous to be around my family. But I experienced the 'dilemma' when my mom wanted me to go up for communion. Instead we compromised on a 'blessing'from the priest which was an uncomfortable compromise. It made my mother happy, which in the end, is worth a few minutes of unease. I try to maintain that balance of togetherness with family and the independence that's characteristic of the Faith.

    This year has been easier than past years as I'm learning to relax the cynicism and resistance to holiday traditions, knowing that my family respects my beliefs and only wants me to be a part of the celebration of theirs.

  6. My wife and I embraced the Baha'i Faith in 1959, after an upbringing in the fundamentalist Baptist tradition of Christianity. We continue to enjoy Christmas music, not only the traditional carols, but other less well known works. "A Ceremony of Carols" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, "The Play of Herod" from the Middle Ages, villancicos by Juan del Encina. We always must listen to Mahalia Jackson singing the haunting "What Child Is This" and the equally poignant "I Wonder As I Wander" from John Jacob Niles. We share these pieces with friends and family members.

    Also during Rosh Hashanah, we shared with Jewish friends and with Baha'is of Jewish background "Cantorial Jewels," an old out-of-print 1949 recording beautifully sung by the tenor Richard Tucker. In one of the selections is voiced "the hope that the worshipper may behold the day when God, enthroned in Zion will rule over the world in glory."

    Liberation from the divisiveness of the past is but one of the many blessings of Baha'u'llah. He encourages fellowship with people of all backgrounds.

  7. Anonymous3:59 PM

    Well, everyone I know seems to cellebrate Christmas, my family, my husband and his family. I used to feel in a bit of a dilema but now maybe age has mellowed me, I just go ahead and cellebrate with them and think about how unity and being joyful is important.

    I used to feel so awkward about hosting a feast when my family wanted the Christmas decorations up but it really doesn't seem to matter anymore.

    What I would really like to do is to develop ways to make the Bahá'í Holy days special. So often they occur at times when so much else is requiring energy or all the energy seems to go into a Bahá'í community event when I sometimes wonder if it wouldn't be nice to do something with and for family and friends. All I have worked out so far is that cake goes down well in the tea break at work! A small start.


  8. Keep those comments coming. The theme that seems to be emerging is the importance of unity, especially family unity which is very important in Baha'i teaching. That definitely shapes my approach to the December dilemma. There is also the issue of the very diverse backgrounds that people enter the Baha'i Faith from and that fact that traditions which are meaningful to us do not have to stop being so just because we become Baha'is. Also continue to love the music associated with Christmas very much. Participating in specific rituals which are inseparable from one's religious identity such as communion become more complex and each person deals with these situations to the best of their ability. When to participate and when to politely not participate is something that I've had to be very thoughtful about over the years. For me, it depends upon the meaning associated with a particular ritual or practice. For example, when I'm at church and people engage in congregational prayer, I will usually stand with everyone but pray silently rather than recite the liturgy along with everyone else. I consider this a reasonable compromise that has worked so far. However if there is a hymn, I'll sing my heart out right along with the rest of the congregation. The issue of Christmas, Hanukkah and so on really does get into broader issues of how Baha'is relate to people of different religions (or no religion) in ways that are aligned with our fundamental teachings.

  9. Anonymous5:30 PM

    Hi Modern Girl,

    So our family solution to the tooth fairy was that when our first born was about to loose her first tooth, (several weeks in advance) I told her all that all around the world it is a big deal when someone looses their teeth for their grown up ones, and every culture has their own tradition. In Malawi kids take their baby tooth and throw it on the thatched roof of their house so the crow can come and take it and bring them a new one. In the US we have the tooth fairy that takes your tooth from under your pillow while you are asleep and leaves a quarter.

    I let her know that if she wanted to we could go to the library and read up lots and lots of ways cultures celebrate lost teeth, and we could pick one, or make up our own.

    She picked out that her mom and dad would pretend to be a miniature flying elephant that is her toothfairy who leaves a quarter and a note saying thank you. Another tradition we have in our family to deal with halloween candy (ha, mom had to get over halloween as well as Christmas and Easter and Valenties Day having been raised in Eastern Africa) is that we have "goblin Janey" living in our house and she collects candy, so all their surplus candy gets put in a bowl with a note, under a chair. "She" puts some dollars and a thank you note under the chair and "keeps" (throws it away) the candy. We made up Goblin Janey together as a process for letting go of candy that really was only needed once, but is fun so we have kept the idea of her around. And who knows, maybe my 2nd who is about to loose some teeth will pick a different tradition to create in regards her tooth fairy.

    Hope you have as much fun as we are having coming up with creative solutions for these personal and social makers. One last fun one, is that for present giving in our home, we don't wrap but we make a treasure hunt for the recipient. This will be the first year where all the clues are written as they have had some that were picture clues for the past 7 or so years :) Gosh I love family!


  10. Anonymous9:36 PM

    I enrolled in the Baha'i Faith right out of high school much to the dismay of my Catholic family. In order to maintain unity, I continued to attend Sunday services until my parents became comfortable with my new Faith. Christmas is very important to my family and it meant a lot to them for me to participate in family traditions. I have always celebrated Christmas with my Catholic family members and exchanged gifts with them. When my children entered school, there was a great emphasis on 'Christmas' including essays on 'What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?'. After much consideration, my husband and I decided to get them one or two small gifts and we emphasized the spiritual significance of the holiday. We listened to the beautiful holiday music and holiday television specials. As a family we seemed to enjoy Christmas even more then our Christian family members because the emphasis was not on the material aspects of the holiday but the spiritual ones. As a family we emphasized our special gift-giving time, Ayyam-i-Ha and they participated in Baha'i community activities including doing charitable works. Now, as adults, we continue to have an annual family dinner where we exchange gifts and we join our Baha'i community in doing charitable works.

  11. Anonymous7:40 PM

    We do not need to question whether something is cause for celebration, for children the opportunity for fun and games, pretend play, stories, fantasies, etc is what makes their childhood memorable and so in fact every holy day no matter the origin is precious. I am iranian and Bahai and lived outside Iran most of my life and only moved to the west in my teenage years, when none of my peers believed in Santa anyway. But those rare occasions when my parents bothered to celebrate Naw Ruz or Ayyamiha are well lit memories, like beacons! So, for my two, who are growing up with a Bahai mother and Christian father, I want to use every opportunity to make some of those beacon-like memories for them.
    But I do have a dilemma with Santa, especially as this year my 5 year old asked me directly, 'mum, is Santa real?' and respecting my husbands side of the family, who make a huge deal with stockings and leaving a snack out for Santa on Christmas eve, responded shockingly with a blatant lie 'of course he is!'