Happy Holidays, or Whatever You Call It
By Jeff Vasishta "Merry Christmas," I casually wished a guy I'd seen working out at my gym in Prospect Heights as he passed me in the locker room. He stopped with a quizzical look on his face. "Err, bro, I'm Jewish," he said. "Oh, sorry," I mumbled, shocked. This was the first time in my life I'd been reprimanded for trying to be nice. As if to dispel any hardcore religious significance he may have perceived in my seasonal greeting, I told him that I was not a Christian either, but a Hindu. At least Hanukkah was on the radar in New York. The gym I attended had both a Menorah and a Christmas tree. As a Hindu, I was disappointed that Diwali didn't even get a mention outside the Indian community, falling marginally outside the festive season. I didn't take it personally, but perhaps I should have. I'd moved to the States from my native England a year prior to the gym incident and quickly realized that part of being an American was choosing your spiritual side and sticking to it. A Hindu wishing a Jew a Happy Noel was clearly politically incorrect. My wife, a Catholic from Trinidad, had both Christian and Hindu relatives, and from an early age was raised to celebrate all her island's diverse cultures. She'd been fairly relaxed about marrying someone outside her faith. We had a Hindu wedding ceremony in Danbury, Conn. But when we looked for a church in New York to allow us to have a "blessing of the rings," we were turned down by several before finding a liberal denomination in Greenwich Village. Would my wife become influenced by U.S. culture and pick her side, too? What about our kids? With the unrelenting marketing muscle that St. Nick wields over other religions in the States, I could imagine all my family joining forces with him and his throng, leaving me a lonely, isolated Hindu. I'd be banished to the outer fringes of ragtag global religions along with Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims, a kind of shantytown outside the Emerald City of Christianity. Maybe that was why the Jewish guy at the gym reacted so forcefully when I misnamed his holiday. I wondered if Jews feel that they are one overly zealous right-wing Christian president away from joining the rest of us in America's religious soup kitchen of homeless faiths. Now I understand the delicate protocol of correctly naming each person's specific religious celebration. In England, wishing someone a Merry Christmas did not connote a solemn remembrance of three kings being led by a star, a stable and a virgin birth. If anything, it means going down to the pub, eating lots of food, opening presents and time off work. A joke I remember from my childhood, told annually by one of my friend's parents, was, "The problem with Christmas is that they always have to bring religion into it." The U.K. has its issues and may be a long way off from electing a non-white prime minister, but it is a largely secular country. The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is an atheist, and the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, is Jewish (an unheard of combination in the U.S.), and Christmas describes a season more than a religious observance. My Hindu family, along with my relatives, partook in the seasonal activities of decorating a tree, opening presents and eating a traditional turkey dinner while the Queen gave her annual speech, as did most of England's multicultural society. It never occurred to us to do otherwise. When it comes to the festive season, Britain, along with most of Europe, just doesn't take things that seriously. It's why many American far-right Christian firebrands believe it's a continent of socialist sinners. I prefer to see it as a spiritually tolerant place that has enough to worry about without bringing religion into the mix to complicate matters further. With that said, just in case, I wish you Happy Holidays.
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