Growing up without a formal religion in the United States can lead many people to insist, “I have no religion. I’m certainly not a Christian.” They define “real” Christians as people who go to church, believe in Jesus as savior and observe Christmas and Easter as religious holidays.
But the reality is more nuanced. Despite the diversity we value and enjoy in this country, America’s culture is shaped by the Christian people who settled it. As a result, Christmas and Easter are federal holidays when government offices close. And the holidays are populated by figures like Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty and the Easter Bunny. All of this is so ingrained in the culture that most Americans don’t see it as unique. But for those who come from a different culture or nation, American culture is indeed quite distinct.
I like to call these Americans who claim no religious identity but follow the customs “folkloric Christian Americans.” They have Christmas trees, give gifts, leave out cookies for Santa and truly love the holiday and all its trappings. To a lesser extent, they also love Easter, with its emphasis on chocolate, bunnies, Easter baskets and Easter egg hunts. They make no reference to the resurrection of Christ and don’t go to an early morning Easter service. But they love the food and decorations that accompany the holiday. They enjoy getting together with family over a big meal — very much like Thanksgiving.
They observe these Christian holidays as folkloric, cultural practices.
Now, here’s the rub: folkloric Christian Americans believe the holidays are about fun, and that no one should have to go through life without them. I’ve heard people say quite sincerely, “It would be cruel to deprive a child of the magic of Christmas.” This kind of statement implies that their cultural norms hold some ultimate truth that every human being should follow.
For Americans who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Native American and others, this perspective can feel like a frontal attack on their own cultural norms and practices. Members of minority communities who grew up surrounded by American norms may feel uncomfortable when they are put on the spot with such statements. And the less able they are to articulate why a particular holiday or practice is not for them, the more upset it makes them feel. They are defending themselves on a primal level but without the vocabulary to express their concerns.
To the Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Sufis, my fellow Jews and others, I want to say that each of us has the human right to be who we are and to decline to adopt the cultural holidays of mainstream Christian America. While some minority folks are happy to get on board and have Easter baskets and Christmas trees, know that you don’t have to. Do not be defensive or angry. Express your sense of self in a soft voice. Graciously decline invitations that would make you feel inauthentic. Let others have their fun. You have your own.
And to the folkloric Christian Americans, I want to say, please wake up to the reality that most of the people on this planet do not have a Christmas tree or Easter basket, and they are doing just fine. Children who don’t practice your cultural holidays won’t feel deprived unless you make a point of trying to make them feel deprived. If you truly welcome diversity, then show it with your actions. Allow others to be different from you. And we should all enjoy and celebrate these differences in one another.