It's that time of year again, when people at companies across America struggle to celebrate the biggest, fattest holiday on the calendar … without saying "Christmas."
They mean well.
Once upon a time, Christmas was the only game in town. You got the Baby Jesus and Santa Claus and elves and Rudolph and wassail and jingle bells … and you liked it.
As America became less "Leave It To Beaver" and more "The New Normal," our awareness of other seasonal traditions grew. First came Hanukah, celebrated around December 21, with its Menorah and dreidels and eight days of gifts. Then came Kwanzaa (December 26 - January 1), celebrating the "first fruits" of African heritage.
Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day -- the day Buddha attained enlightenment -- on December 8th. One of the most important holidays in Islam, Eid al-Adha, falls on the same day, recognizes Abraham's faithfulness, and is celebrated with festive meals and gifts for children. Wiccans and Pagans celebrate the Winter Solstice (around December 23 in our hemisphere). Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, often gets tossed into the mix, even though, technically, it's celebrated in October or November.
The list grows. Now there's Festivus (an anti-holiday based on, of all things, a Seinfield episode) and, my personal favorite, Krampus Day (on December 1), when men of Germanic descent dress up as demons and threaten children with torches and whips. And there's more to come. There's the Persian Yalda (December 21), an all-night vigil featuring snacks of fruits and nuts, the Roman Saturnalia solstice observation, and Pancha Ganapati (a five-day festival for Ganesha, running from December 21-25), to name a few.
The result in corporate America -- where "appreciating diversity" is now (for good reason) written into strategic plans and mission statements -- is lots and lots of hand-wringing. This time of year, employees from the majority culture expect lighted trees, red-ribboned wreaths, ornaments, and carols. But what to do, when not everyone in the company celebrates Christmas?
Approaches vary. Some companies, in an attempt to offend no one, squelch all observations of any kind (and, in the process, offend everyone). Others make awkward attempts at integration: setting up a Menorah under the Christmas tree or decorating a tree with Kwanzaa-colored lights. Executives agonize over what to put on Christmas cards when images of Wise Men, colored lights, and even wreaths are considered failures of diversity … and struggle with what to say, when even the generic "Happy Holidays" is considered offensive to those atheists who don't consider any day a "holy day."
Irony abounds. Recently, a friend told me about a complaint filed at his company: someone objected to hearing an instrumental version of "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" playing in the lobby. The complaint didn't address the presence of a gigantic Christmas tree, yards and yards of garland, or the huge red and green ornaments … just the playing of a Christian hymn. The complainer was actually a Christian, who felt obligated to lodge the complaint in support of the company's diversity initiatives and on behalf on the non-Christian employees (none of whom complained). The response was to remove the offensive hymn and replace it with Kenny G's rendition of "Silver Bells."
To restore a little sanity to the season, I feel compelled to note that True Diversity (™), instead of squelching or feeling guilty about any one tradition, embraces and celebrates them all. My approach:
1) For a lot of us, it's Christmas. Those trees? Those red and white lights? Those wreaths? They're borrowed from other traditions, but they're now undeniably Christmassy. Any pretense that these are generic decorations requires an enormous investment of time and energy in denial. For a lot of us, it's Christmas. True Diversity (™) requires us to embrace that.
2) Champion whatever you celebrate. Instead of corporate executives trying to make sure there's one Menorah for every plastic Santa Claus in the office, let's invite employees to openly celebrate whatever they celebrate.
In the lobby, let's play Christmas hymns -- along with "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel," "The Kwanzaa Song," "Here Comes the Sun," and whatever else *those who celebrate a particular holiday* care to submit. In the cubes, let's put up Christmas trees -- and photo spreads of your Kwanzaa celebration, a Yule log, a platter of pommegranites and watermelons, and whatever else *those who celebrate a particular holiday* care to submit. But whatever we do, let's do it because real people who care about it cared enough to bring it in.
The holiday season is an opportunity to showcase a broad spectrum of cultures and customs. Instead of squelching any one tradition or implementing quota systems … True Diversity (™) celebrates them all.
3) Let's stop policing each other. I'm weary of well-intentioned corporate Christians -- people who actually celebrate Christmas! -- responding to my wishing them a "Merry Christmas" with a stern look and a reminder that I should say, "Happy Holidays." Even in a diverse culture, it's okay for people who celebrate Christmas to say, "Merry Christmas" to each other.
If you know I celebrate Christmas and want to wish me a Merry Christmas, please do. If you celebrate Deis Natalis Solis Invicti (The Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun) instead, feel free to wish me a Happy Deis Natalis Solis Invicti. I won't be offended. In fact, I'll be intrigued, and want to know more about it. Once you tell me what you celebrate, I'm happy to switch to the appropriate greeting. That's True Diversity (™).
It comes down to this: People tend to speak and act from the perspective of their own culture. Whatever your custom, celebrate it and be an ambassador for it. Give me an opportunity to learn about it, to participate in it, and to see it through the lens of your unique experience.
Instead of seizing on opportunities to be offended, assume good intentions. That's not just a good idea for the holidays -- it's a pretty good strategy for life.