Despite the steps towards religious inclusion during the holidays –– such as the phrase “Happy holidays” as opposed to “Merry Christmas” –– this time of year in the Western world is still typically dominated by Christmas. With holiday specials, festive music and the time off from work or school, Christmas affects every facet of American lives in December.
Even so, there are many families and individuals in the U.S. who, due to their own religious backgrounds and beliefs, do not celebrate Christmas.
Junior linguistics major Jimmy Kieu said his Buddhist family does not really participate in the holiday.
“For my family specifically, we do not necessarily do anything special for Christmas,” Kieu said. “It’s just a day off...Like, it’s literally just like every other Saturday.”
Despite the increased commercialization of Christmas, junior psychology major Hamza Syed said as a Muslim, he still does not see it as a secular holiday.
“Christmas has always seemed like a very Christian thing to me that has been made an American thing,” Syed said. “Which for America to be the melting pot of the world, I feel like [it should] either celebrate all different religious holidays or none of them.”
Roey Shoshan is the executive director of Hillel at the University of Georgia, an organization that fosters the creation of a Jewish community at universities. For him and for much of the Jewish community, this time of year is defined by the celebration of Hanukkah.
“I think that one of the things we can use to give people a good sense of how to develop that Jewish identity is by celebrating the holidays, but more importantly educate about the holidays,” Shoshan said. “And Hanukkah I think has a very significant part in it.”
Shoshan said Hanukkah is the easiest Jewish holiday to celebrate; all it calls for is lighting eight candles on a menorah over eight days. It symbolizes the miracle from the Jewish Temple era when a small can of oil lasted for eight days to light the menorah.
Hillel at UGA will celebrate Hanukkah virtually, Shoshan said, in an effort to continue to foster their Jewish community.
Although Kieu himself does not observe Christmas, he still appreciates the festivities.
“It is my favorite holiday,” Kieu said. “So I do engage in gift giving, gift exchanges. Christmas movies are also fun. I also really just like the general atmosphere of winter and snow, and how everyone’s friendly.”
Shoshan sees the holiday season as a time to recognize and learn about other religions. He said this was reflected in Hillel’s interfaith Shabbat dinner last year, where the organization invited members of other faith organizations to speak and engage with.
“We have a responsibility to educate people about other religions as well, not just ours,” Shoshan said. “Because I think that’s going to create a much better ecosystem at UGA and in Athens for more tolerance.”
Syed said he would like to see more recognition of minority religions, especially in the United States where the country prides itself on diversity.
“I went to Malaysia and they have Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, Buddhist, Hindus –– they have so many people over there,” Syed said. “And for Eid, Muslims open up their houses to anyone for dinner. And for Christmas, Christians open their doors for Christmas dinners or for gift giving.”
Syed said he would like to bring this aspect of Malaysian culture to the United States.
“I would want other religions to also be recognized so that it really allows everyone to represent themselves, and for the state to support everyone, no matter who they are,” Syed said.