christmas abroad

I’ve noticed in recent years that Asian countries are celebrating Christmas much more frequently. Of course this is especially surprising in "officially" atheist countries like China, but I have to admit my surprise at the sudden upswing in Christmas celebrations in India.

From every media report that I’ve read, decorations and Christmas trees are now commonplace, though they were almost completely unheard-of as recently as a decade ago. It’s especially notable because, of course, christians only make up 3% of the population in India, and were (and usually still are) a rather opressed and maligned minority in a country that’s being led by its ruling hard-right political party, the BJP, towards a policy of increasingly extremist hindu nationalism.

One of the interesting things about this sudden shift is the reaction that I see from people here in the United States when they find out about these cultural changes. Every single person I’ve talked to in the U.S. who identifies as a christian has asked why our culture can’t unapologetically accept "christian traditions" the way these Asian countries can. It’s a recurring theme that I see, people who are Christmas evangelists acting as if loudly promoting Christmas is a position that’s not somehow unpopular, or even novel.

Those of us who grew up in America with even a second-hand knowledge of Christmas know that Christmas is an overpowering, relentlessly ubiquitous event. (I traded gifts yesterday, but they were shoddily wrapped. Does that count?) That it’s inspired by some genuinely positive ideas and a really pleasant fable is irrevelant when speaking of the sheer pervasiveness of the holiday. Acting like those who celebrate the holiday are a persecuted minority, or repeating the hoary old myth that "it’s gotten too damned commercial" when it’s a holiday named after Jesus Christ is embarrasingly transparent doublespeak.

Of course, there’s nothing more American than an overpowering sense of entitlement. It’s not enough that nearly everyone observes your religion’s holiday in one way or another, they have to celebrate the holiday in the way that you prescribe. I live in New York City, which the British claimed, apropos of nothing, from the Dutch due to the overwhelming military power, superior organization and richer resources available to the British colonists. In short, they conquered the island of Manhattan, and in the tradition of conquerors, they renamed damn near everything and planted their flag all over the place.

But they decided, unilaterally, not to impose their practices of religious holidays on their new Dutch subjects in the territory formerly known as New Amsterdam. They even allowed those who lived in the slave quarters that occupied the land that’s now the Upper East Side to practice their religion as they saw fit. It’s somewhat telling that today’s Christmas advocates are demanding more of their countrymen than Europe’s early explorers did of the people whom they conquered.

The point of all this? Well, I like Christmas, really. Isn’t that enough? Take a lesson from India’s adoption of some Christmas traditions: hindus make up about 3% of the U.S. population, almost exactly the same percentage that christians do in India. Even under the political leadership of religious extremists, the people in that country are able to see the fun and beauty of some part of another religion’s traditions, to the point where they’re adopted and celebrated. The lesson is not that everyone should celebrate Christmas, but that every culture can gain by celebrating the best of all the people who contribute to that culture.

Why is it that all of the people who yesterday were suffused with the Christmas spirit are unable or unwilling to see that it might be just as useful for them to adopt some of the traditions of another culture? What makes Americans see the celebration of a minority culture on the other side of the world as proof that minorities here need to conform more to the traditions of the majority? Maybe next year you can try out some of the holdays you’ve been missing. You don’t even have to buy any presents.