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 CNN.com 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?