Today is National Freedom of Religion Day in the US, a most singular day of observance at this time of year.
I was thinking about this when I came across a video with a minister visiting with his non-Christian congregation regarding Christmas and the Christmas season; he cautioned his congregants about the celebration of Christmas, and had some points to make about the holiday itself. If people get into the habit of celebrating Christian holidays and observances, he said, they might find themselves slipping into Christianity and rejecting their own faith.
And Christmas itself, he went on, is not even a Christian holiday – its roots are in paganism, and Christians delude themselves that there is anything Christian about Christmas.
Although this was intended for a specific audience, the cautions made me think.
“We are what we repeatedly do” is a quote most of us recognize from Aristotle, but he was speaking about action taken to the point where it becomes unthinking habit – and then his observation becomes true. If I repeatedly do all the performances of a particular faith and lose myself in its observances, I may very well become someone indistinguishable from that particular path – even in my own mind. However, I think this process is quite different than what we do when we participate in celebrating the holy days of another faith.
As a Christian, I commit (sadly, “commit” speaks more to intent on occasion than actual behavior, but I try) to following the Admonition of Paul from Philippians 4:8, to seek out all things true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report and virtuous, and worthy of praise. Essentially, to celebrate and contemplate the worthwhile things of the world. There are also plenty of references in the Bible to the fact that all things which invite a person to do good come from the same benevolent Source.
When friends of mine celebrate something which gives them tremendous joy and meaning, it is an honor to be asked to participate with them – we’re friends, and I am sharing in their happiness. How can that be a bad thing? I’m not losing my own faith when I encourage and support the faith of others, but rather as a Christian I am following the intent of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) – to support my fellow beings in the pursuits which make all of us worthwhile humans.
Regarding Christmas – of course it’s based on Paganism! Honestly, most of the really fun Christian holidays are! How is this a problem?
When one faith moves into the “territory” of another faith, the two cannot but help be influenced by each other. The new faith will “re-purpose” the symbols present so they support the new beliefs, and the things which over time have become inseparable from the culture remind everyone of the new covenants and ideas they are accepting. Over time, every major world religion has “co-opted” existing belief systems in new areas of expansion and this influx of symbols gives the faith a new depth and breadth. Of course, I’m just defending the Pagan roots of Christian holidays here – not trying to explain Rudolf the red-nose reindeer to a Martian just discovering Christianity!
The fact that we are all affected by – and have an impact on – each other should not be a surprise or revelation to anyone.
As humans we’re social animals, we have to interact to be healthy.
Religions by and large share a common trait – we are taught compassion for our fellows, respect for those who are different, and we are admonished to be good neighbors.
Being asked to participate in the celebrations of our neighbors and friends should be a blessing and honor, and not viewed as a threat to our soul. Our friends trust us enough to share something personally sacred which makes them truly happy – isn’t that a definition of being a good neighbor?
Please don’t misunderstand – I know there are countless examples of this kind of interaction gone wrong; history is full of terrible examples. But as thinking beings, we should not be confined or restricted to the worst possibilities – we have the choice to pick the best option and follow it.
And celebrating those things which make life worth living with our neighbors is a good thing.
And allowing those positive engagements to deepen and widen our own faith – well, that’s a good thing, too.
Each of us have neighbors who are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, Sikh, Wicca, and everything in between – we are surrounded by wonderful opportunities to be a good neighbor! Our friendships and interactions will help us each to learn those things which make our friends become their best selves, and will also deepen our own most treasured beliefs. It is truly a blessing to be friends with so many people who are so varied, colorful, and different.
Going back to my own (Pagan-flavored) Christianity – when St. Brebeuf came to the Huron in the seventeenth century, he sought for just that kind of positive interaction, and wrote one of my favorite Christmas carols as a result: