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Om for the Holidays

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Lights in the windows. Treasured ornaments I haven’t seen all year. The scents of pine and mulled cider and cookies baking. I am enchanted by each of these and intoxicated by their combination. Although it has been many years since I identified myself as Christian, I am unabashedly in love with Christmas.

Like many of my peers, my spiritual seeking has taken me down foreign paths and into distant countries. This blending of influences has molded me into someone who can believe in a Buddhist cosmology, practice a Hindu meditation technique, and still celebrate Christmas like a good Catholic girl.

I realize that such mixed loyalties cause some people serious angst-angst I’ve been spared, I think, by having been reared in a sort of ecumenical soup. My father inherited Catholicism, so I did too. Still, when patients in his inner city medical practice invited us to rollicking Pentecostal tent revivals, exquisite Greek Orthodox weddings, and proudly joyous bar mitzvahs, we always went.

My mother was an eclectic Protestant who consulted psychics and studied astrology. The surrogate grandmother who came to help care for me when I was 6 months old (and stayed until I was caring for her 30 years later) raised me on Emerson, Unity, and Yogananda. When I was a teenager, I sat in silence with the Quakers, listened in awe to the Baha’is, and got “saved” twice at Youth for Christ. (That second conversion was a serious breach of evangelical etiquette, but it had seemed to me that the first one hadn’t quite worked.)

I didn’t have a word for it then, but I grew up in an interfaith environment: a family culture in which more than one religion is prominent, or in which all religions are viewed as valid-even equal. Having such a background is probably why being a yoga-practicing Buddhist who adores Christmas seems perfectly normal.

Theologian Marcus Bach calls people like me “vagabonds in the wonderful world of spirit.” As such, I see no conflict in my soul’s polygamous mingling of traditions and customs. It lets me draw from the wisdom of the world and still delight in the hall-decking, carol-singing, gift-giving euphoria of this time of year in this place on the planet.

Holidays—Holy Days?

There is, of course, a shadow side to this bright celebration. The urge to spend money (or a plastic imitation of it) sucks many into a spiral of debt. There is also an almost arrogant assumption that everybody is supposed to be happy simply because the holidays—note: the holidays—are here. Even those who have no desire to acknowledge Christmas are told to have a merry one by the same people who also expect them to “have a nice day” the rest of the year. Whether one celebrates the most culturally prevalent holiday of the season, a different holiday, or none at all, this seemingly universal expectation of merriment presents an unrealistic goal for many. The impossibility of experiencing joy on demand is a major contributor to the sad fact that depression and suicide peak in December.

The cultural perception that living it up is the raison d’etre for the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s can be tough for a lot of people. Jews in Europe and America have dealt with this for years. Some go skiing and valiantly attempt to avoid the issue. Others elevate Hanukkah, a relatively minor celebration on the Jewish calendar, to a higher status than religion dictates so they and their children can take part in the same level of celebration as their neighbors. Still others celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas.

Western students of Eastern philosophies sometimes adopt similar strategies. But among the families I’ve spoken with, it seems more common to mark the holidays of their heritage, whether Christian or Jewish, as spiritual observances not reserved for one religion alone. It was a miracle that one day’s oil brought light for eight days, the eight days of Hanukkah. And the birth of a Semitic siddha (spiritual master) 2,000 years ago is well worth remembering today.

It’s a good thing, too, because if you’re a Westerner with Christian roots, just about everybody expects you to acknowledge those roots at Christmastime. I first realized this through the two Tibetan refugee children I sponsor, Karma Lhadon and Thinlay Yangzom. They easily accept my identifying myself as Buddhist and end their letters with, “May His Holiness the Dalai Lama bless you and give you good health and happiness.” But every December they send me Christmas cards, the Hallmark wannabes of India: manger scenes usually, sometimes including monkeys and elephants.

The first couple of years, I thought the cards implied an assumption on the part of the girls that I was just another American dilettante, toying with Buddhism as one might dabble in needlepoint or cake decorating. As I got to know them-and Buddhism-better, though, I realized that Karma and Thinlay honored my Buddhist leanings all year long. At Christmastime, they honored the reality of my life: I was born into a Christian family in a predominantly Christian country. This is my genetic and cultural heritage, as surely as having my father’s eyes and knowing the lyrics of the pop songs and TV jingles of my childhood.

“The thing about Eastern religions like Buddhism is that they are all-encompassing,” says Shelly Carlson, who researched world religions for her book Journaling Your Authentic Self. “Technically, you can’t be a Jew and believe in Jesus, and you can’t be a Christian and not believe in Jesus. Buddhism doesn’t exclude. It teaches that all religions are different paths to enlightenment. A Buddhist could celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah without being hypocritical.”

Interfaith Celebrating

Rich Thomson is such a Buddhist. A former Methodist, Rich is in his 40s and married for the second time. He and his wife Stephanie are raising their 1-year-old son Mason in the richness of the interfaith approach. “Christ was the teacher, prophet, and Messiah of my youth,” Rich explains. “He was as much a part of my family as my ancestors. To deny him would be to deny a part of myself. As a Buddhist I don’t have to. We’re taught to appreciate what’s in front of us: If everyone is finding joy in the Prince of Peace, why shouldn’t I join in their celebration?”

Why not indeed? The Thomsons have already joined some 30 million other Americans in having a religiously mixed marriage. Stephanie is a practicing Christian with an interest in Taoism. Her father is a Baptist minister. The Kansas City, Missouri-based couple sometimes finds it necessary to seek a compromise with relatives—beginning with Mason’s baptism. “We changed some of the wording, some of the ‘born in sin’ stuff. We’re lucky that everybody is willing to be a little flexible. I, myself, just want the best for my son, in this world and the spiritual world. Do I have a St. Christopher medal hooked to his buggy? Yes. Do I have a little Buddha on his nightstand? Yes. Will Santa Claus be in his life? Of course. And so will Halloween costumes and Easter egg hunts. These are the play side of religion.”

Of course, religion and religious holidays also have tremendous serious and sacred intent. For people like Peter McLaughlin, staying true to his adopted faith—Tibetan Buddhism of the Shambhala school—and respectful of his mother’s adopted faith as a born-again Christian presented a challenge when his son, now 20, was a preschooler.

“My mother was worried that our son was not being raised as a Christian. She would send presents to him at Christmas wrapped in ‘Jesus Loves You’ paper. She was so concerned. I knew it was out of love. Finally, we had to sit down and talk. It took a conversation, but she understood.”

In the intervening years, maturity and tolerance have prevailed, but McLaughlin, a resident of Evanston, Illinois, still remembers when he felt like part of a distinct minority, not only with family members, but also within society at large.

“When you’re part of a small group, it’s as if you’re going in a different direction from the rest of the culture. There are a lot of Buddhists in the world, but there aren’t masses of them in Chicago. It’s growing, but you can still be in an office building of 1,000 people and be one of only several Buddhists there.”

Being part of the Shambhala community has helped a great deal. Its founder, the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, adapted the festival of “Children’s Day” from existing Asian traditions in response to the needs of Shambhala families at this time of year. Children’s Day takes places on the winter solstice, usually December 21. It includes gifts, treats, and activities to build children’s self-esteem and spiritual sensibilities.

The 3HO Foundation, comprised of Western Sikhs who practice Kundalini Yoga and follow the Indian-born spiritual teacher Yogi Bhajan, hold an annual winter solstice retreat in Florida. Guru Parwaz Khalsa, a member of 3HO and the mother of four daughters ages 1 to 15, cherishes the times the family can travel from its Kansas City home to attend. “We do lots of yoga and meditation, and there are many activities for the children. It gives them a chance to be with their friends from other parts of the country and to develop these relationships. It is particularly fun for them since most of these children have the same lifestyle as our family, which includes being vegetarian.”

Guru Parwaz and her husband, Jagatguru, have nothing against Christmas or Christ. They just can’t warm to the commercial way in which his birthday is observed in America today. “Christ was a teacher, a teacher who lived in the consciousness of his divinity every day,” she says. “We’re capable of doing that, too. For Sikhs, every day is spiritual.” This means living “in the most conscious way we can with people and the environment,” she adds. “Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, the point is not to have a robot mentality. Each moment is a new experience whether you are following a set tradition or experiencing something completely new. I know so many people who wear themselves out trying to have the ‘perfect Christmas,’ and they don’t even know why they’re doing it. Other people run up charge cards for toys and gadgets that won’t even get used.”

Family Dynamics

Aaron (pronounced Ah-hah-RONE) Zerah, an interfaith minister in Santa Cruz, California, recognizes the internal conflict Americans on an Eastern spiritual path can face regarding Christmas. The Eastern regard for a simple lifestyle with fewer material things collides with Madison Avenue’s annual insistence that shopping is a sort of capitalistic sacrament, or at least the greatest way to show love. Of course, Christ taught the same simplicity and selflessness as Eastern teachers (or any great teacher for that matter). Unfortunately, that tends to get lost at Christmas.

“A Taoist priest once said that if you grew up in America, you’re a Christian,” says Zerah. “The values, the culture, and the politics are all colored by Christian values—or purported Christian values. The differences in cultural practice bring a psycho-spiritual conflict. Even if you disregard religion, the whole rest of society seems to be taking part in this crass, commercial celebration.”

According to Zerah, you can avoid some of that by immersing yourself in your practice and your spiritual community, but the holidays can still bring deeply charged issues to the surface. Even families that peaceably ignore differences of theological opinion throughout the year can see their differences magnified at Christmastime, especially as children enter the picture. Parents can often accept, or at least overlook, an adult child’s exploration of alternative religions, his chanting in Sanskrit, or eating only vegetarian food. Things often heat up, however, when grandchildren come, grandchildren destined to be deprived of “visions of sugarplums” and getting the drumstick when Grandpa carves the turkey.

Children and grandchildren bring up primal concerns about tradition and heritage and eternal life. These are perhaps the most meaningful issues humans face, and they should be discussed in the right way and at the right time. Weighty matters such as religious upbringing or the fate of souls merit more respect than it’s possible to give them at a holiday dinner table, a setting which deserves to be spared somber or heated exchanges. Festivity requires that at least one team withdraw from the debating society and keep the conversation closer to “You outdid yourself on the yams this year, Grandma.”

Both Christmas and Hanukkah use lights in their celebration. This can be a useful metaphor to remind us to keep it light when we’re with family members whose world view differs from ours. The point is to stay focused on the love that draws everyone together rather than on ideology that can pull people apart. If the conversation turns toward areas of difference, bring it back to a place of harmony. Find reasons to laugh, even if it means telling your corniest jokes. Be playful—merry, even.

“Family is so important,” says Bhavani Metro, a student of Swami Satchidananda. “Anything that causes a rift in that is very sad.” She and her husband have raised five daughters and a son at Yogaville, the Integral Yoga community in rural Virginia. They now have nine grandchildren. “When we started in yoga, our families were concerned; they had read about cults and brainwashing. And they thought we were a little fanatical about all the things we didn’t eat: meat and sugar and processed foods. That changed as we learned to stop preaching, stay loving, and simply be an example. Over time, they saw the benefits of our lifestyle on us and on our children.”

Peace on Earth

Perhaps the key to maintaining sanity is simply remembering that it is possible to make this season, so ripe for emotional combustibility, truly a time of peace and goodwill. To that end, here are a few suggestions:

    • Consider beforehand what constitutes a big deal and what doesn’t. Is Grandma’s giving your 5-year-old a candy cane a real problem? What about taking him to see Santa? Or to an evangelical church service? If you know in advance where you’ll bend and where you won’t, you’ll free yourself from snap decisions that are seldom wise.
      • Let your practice show through your actions, not an impromptu lecture. For example, bringing a vegetarian entree to share can be quietly powerful, while pontificating on the evils of flesh eating could be rude, even cruel. You may be the only yogi your siblings or your in-laws will ever meet; to them, you represent an entire teaching. We’d all do well to emulate a woman I once heard about who used to have terrible rows with her family until she learned to embody her practice rather than preach it. “I found out,” she said, “that it worked better for me to be a Buddha than to be a Buddhist.”
        • Stay close to your path, but also stay culturally recognizable. Eastern and Western cultural differences in such things as language, dress, and music tend to trouble those unfamiliar with them far more than religious concepts do. What Eastern cultural practices are you willing to downplay around your family? Which ones are necessary to your spiritual integrity and therefore not expendable?
          • Practice tolerance, even with those who have yet to learn it. You can be faithful to your teacher, even if your dad has a negative view of him—and you can respect your father at the same time. You can stay devoted to yoga, and pleasant to your mother, despite her telling you she thinks you’d lose that 10 pounds more quickly if you took up Tae-Bo instead. Allow people to be who they are. Take comfort in your inner truth.
          • Celebrate with your family and friends as you’d want them to celebrate with you. Eastern religions, generally speaking, have a relatively ecumenical view of other faiths as different routes to a common destination. It may be that your sister will never take part in your favorite Hindu festival, or your best friend from high school might never join with you in the springtime celebration of the Buddha’s birth and enlightenment. You can still join them in Christmas carols and Hanukkah games, fruitcake and potato pancakes.

          “At Yogaville, we are Christmas,” says Bhavani. “We have an open house that’s truly open to all people. We have a big spread of food. Christ is the deity we honor that day. We live in a Christian society and honor those traditions. Christ’s light is the same that’s in all religions. Only the devotion is different. It’s different aspects of the same divine light.”

          Reverend Zerah, who “studied and came to cherish and value every faith imaginable from Aboriginal to Zoroastrian and all in between,” bases his life and his ministry on venerating the myriad aspects of that divine light. His latest book, The Soul’s Almanac: A Year of Interfaith Stories, Prayers, and Wisdom, exalts those aspects in all religions and throughout the year.

          A Jew born to Polish Holocaust survivors, Zerah is married to a woman who grew up Protestant and is now a devotee of a Hindu holy man, Baba Hari Dass, known as “The Silent Guru,” who has not spoken in over half a century. This year the Zerahs’ baby daughter, Sari Magdala, will enjoy her second Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights commemorating the return of Lord Rama from exile with parties, sweets, and reverence paid to Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance. This will also be Sari’s second Christmas, her second Hanukkah, her second winter solstice, her second Kwaanza, and so on.

          If celebration enriches the soul, as nearly every religion on record has taught, children like Sari are spiritual millionaires. So are the adults who can relish as thoroughly the simple joys of these special days. Rich Thomson tells the story of a Buddhist monk who falls from a cliff, grabs a twig to save himself, and notices that the twig has a strawberry on the end of it. He eats the strawberry. A passerby, seeing the monk’s precarious state, asks why he is smiling. “Because,” he says, “the strawberry is sweet.”

          That’s what holidays give us: sweetness in a sometimes dangerous and often confusing world. “When Christmas comes,” says Thomson, “sure I’ll eat too much. And when people give me gifts, I’ll say thanks. You can’t ask for a better holiday than Christmas.”