Most holidays are about faith, family, and friendship, so it’s only natural that we want to include those we care about in our celebrations. With a little bit of sensitivity, we can share our traditions with those of other cultures and faith without making them feel isolated or judged–and without compromising our own beliefs. Here is what I’ve learned from my own experience and the experiences of friends from other faiths.
During the Holidays
Greet people the way you would like to be greeted.
“Happy holidays” is ubiquitous during December. While it is a nice compromise, you may choose to be more sensitive of non-religious friends or friends of another faith. “Hello” and “goodbye” are acceptable to people of all faiths year-round. Keep in mind that a number of religious celebrations have their own special ways for the faithful to greet one another:
- Purim (Late winter, Jews): “Happy holiday,” or “Happy Purim.”
- Passover (Spring, Jews): “Happy Passover.”
- Easter (Spring, Protestants and Catholic Christians): “Happy Easter.”
- Easter (Spring, Eastern Orthodox Christians): When someone says, “Christ is risen,” you respond, “Truly he is risen.”
- Ramadan (Early fall, Muslims): “Ramadan Mubarak,” which means, “May God give you a blessed month.”
- ‘Eid al-Fitr (Fall, Muslims): “Eid Mubarak,” which means, “May God make it a blessed feast.”
- ‘Eid al-Adha (Fall, Muslims): “Eid Mubarak,” which means, “May God make it a blessed feast.”
- Rosh Hashanah (Fall, Jews): “Happy new year,” or “Shana tovah.”
- Yom Kippur (Fall, Jews): “Have an easy fast.”
- Sukkot (Fall, Jews): “Happy holiday.”
- Hanukkah (Early winter, Jews): “Happy Hanukkah.”
- Christmas (December 25, Christians): “Merry Christmas” or, in the UK and the British Commonwealth, “Happy Christmas”
Don’t give gifts to people who don’t celebrate holidays.
It’s one thing to hand a Jewish co-worker you know well a holiday present. But keep in mind that the gift-giving gesture may create an awkward situation for others. For example, Christian Scientists don’t recognize Christmas as a special holiday; Jehova’s Witnesses do not celebrate any holidays or birthdays.
When in doubt, no gift at all is better than the wrong gift.
Outside of your circle of closest friends, whom you probably know well anyway, your friends and co-workers are unlikely to be bothered if you don’t get them a gift. The best way to avoid hurt feelings and awkwardness is to find some other, non-holiday-related way to express your friendship.
Hosting and attending holiday events around religious event pose a set of challenges all their own. You should never feel compelled to lie about, hide, or change your religious beliefs to make others feel comfortable, but you can show courtesy to your guests or hostess by being aware of your differences.
When You’re the Host
Communicate expectations with your invitation. Make sure your guests of other faiths know what they’re signing up for when they RSVP “yes” to your party. If your event will involve as much religious observance as eating and drinking, either warn your friend or skip the invitation–most won’t take it as a slight. Otherwise, make sure your friend has all the information he or she needs to feel comfortable.
Provide for everyone. When inviting people of other faiths into your home for food or drink it is always a good idea to ask if they have any special dietary needs. For example, most Muslims won’t drink alcohol and Jews may not eat non-kosher meat. If you want to avoid the potential awkwardness of asking, be sure to provide at least one non-alcoholic beverage and something vegetarian for your guests.
Don’t let the holidays make you insensitive. An atheist friend reports that more people try to provoke him about during the holidays. And a Muslim friend says that a group once unexpectedly prayed over her at a Christmas party. Friends who aren’t religious or who are members of other faiths can still enjoy the pleasure of food and company, but they can’t enjoy either if they feel singled-out or antagonized. No matter how good your motives, a holiday party isn’t an appropriate time to try to convert your friends.
Express an interest. Your party celebrating your faith isn’t necessarily the right time to ask your friend to explain her beliefs, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be curious. When your friend takes the time to learn more about the things that are important to you, take the time to ask about the things that are important to him or her. Maybe you can ask your friend to lunch or join in at a celebration of her own.
Be true to yourself and your faith. You don’t have to go so far to accomodate your friends that you violate the spirit of the holiday. Follow basic rules of hospitality for guests in your home, but value your religious identity, too. Being polite shouldn’t have to mean giving up a part of who you are.
When You’re the Guest
It’s okay to say no. When a friend invites you to a religious event, make sure you know what will be involved. If anything will make you feel uncomfortable or unfaithful, politely decline the invitation.
Ask questions. More than likely, a friend who has invited you to a celebration of her religious beliefs wants you to understand something important about her life. Make sure you know what is expected of you–how to dress, how to behave, etc. When you get the chance, ask your friend to explain what’s going on. You’ll learn something new and show your friend how much you value her.
Lend a helping hand. Maybe your friend hasn’t invited you to share a religious celebration with her. Or maybe you’ve declined the invitation. That doesn’t mean you can’t share some small part of her holiday with her. For example, Orthodox Jews don’t work on the Sabbath–perhaps you could prepare a meal one Saturday. Or, if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you could offer to babysit during a midnight church service.
How do you share holidays with friends of other faiths?