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Students reflect on the holiday season

December 13, 2007

According to the popular Christmas song, the holiday season lays claim to being “the most wonderful time of the year.”

And with the results of a March Newsweek poll showing that 82 percent of Americans identify as Christian, Dec. 25 holds a special significance in our nation’s psyche.

The proliferation of front yard nativity scenes and gingerbread men cookies can make it easy to forget that this sentiment is not universal.

For four UW-River Falls students, the sanctity ascribed to Christmas does not mesh with their religious beliefs. But whether it means celebrating a completely different holiday or skipping the festivities altogether, each brings a unique perspective to the holiday season.

Festival of lights
Sophomore Josh Greenberg, who is Jewish, didn’t have a Christmas tree in his home while growing up.

Unlike the majority of his peers in Poplar, Wis., who waited in anticipation for Santa Claus to come down the chimney on Christmas Eve, the instrumental music education major looked forward to lighting the first candle of the Hanukkah menorah with his family.

Hebrew for “dedication” or “consecration,” the eight-day celebration commemorates the 165 BC rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem after its defilement by Greek-Syrian invaders. According to Jewish history, when it came time to relight the rededicated Temple’s menorah, there was only enough oil to keep the candles burning for one day.

Amazingly, the menorah went on to burn for eight days.

It is from this miracle that Hanukkah gained its nickname as “the Festival of Lights.”

A candle on the Hanukkah menorah is lit every evening at sundown. By the end of the holiday eight candles are aflame.

“The tradition is to light the menorah from right to left,” Greenberg said. “It’s the same as you read Hebrew.”

The nightly lighting of the Hanukkah menorah is a family affair. Blessings accompany the ceremony, as well as the sharing of Jewish folk tales. Food is also consumed; according to Greenberg, this usually consists of potato pancakes called latkes and gefilte fish, which is stuffed walleye or pike.

The 20-year-old said gifts are exchanged, but the opportunity to spend time with loved ones is more important.

“We get presents but it’s not a big shindig,” he said. “We try to focus on the family meaning of being together instead of presents.”

Based on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah’s dates alternate every year, but always fall within the November-December holiday season.

This year’s Hanukkah celebration of Dec. 4-11 meant that Greenberg, who is over two hours away from his family, had to forgo the holiday.

“For students of different religions, you’d think that schools would be more understanding about allowing them days off,” he said. “But in most cases, that is not so.”

Residence hall rules prohibiting candle lighting, as well as the lack of a Jewish presence in River Falls, were also contributing factors, Greenberg said.

“If you’re not home and you’re not in a religious community, you can’t celebrate,” he said.

The sophomore said he had the option of heading to a synagogue in the Twin Cities to commemorate Hanukkah, but that it would have cost money to participate in the festivities.

“Depending on where you go, it can be pretty expensive,” he said.

Just another day
Junior Muriel Montgomery is very opinionated when it comes to the topic of religion.

“I believe that religion should be eradicated from the earth,” she said.

The English major grew up celebrating Christmas with her family, but decided to become an atheist at the age of 11. She cited “rationality, reason and common sense” as the reasons behind her decision.

“I looked around, saw no God, and decided there must not be a God,” she said.

Therefore, the mother of two said she does not buy into the holiday season craze.

“On December 25th, I wake up, check the calendar and realize that all of the stores are closed,” she said. “It’s a good day for catching up on laundry and chores.”

Montgomery said that her attitude toward Christmas is uncommon even among fellow atheists; many of whom she said still celebrate the holiday even though they do not believe in God.

“Although it’s not even popular among atheists, I am an atheist who believes that Christmas is founded on religious ceremony and hoopla,” she said. “And I don’t particularly think that’s a good thing for my family.”

Muhammad and Santa Claus
Sophomores Sanaa Jaman and Qurina Khan were raised in the Muslim faith. Their fathers are from Kuwait and Pakistan, respectively. But their mothers happen to be Minnesota-bred Catholics. As a result, although both Jaman and Khan received an Islamic upbringing, they both have Dec. 25 circled on their calendars.

“Even though our family is Muslim, we still celebrate Christmas,” Jaman, a chemical engineering major, said. “We thought it would be interesting to do even though we don’t necessarily believe in the entire concept.”

“As a Muslim, we’re not supposed to celebrate holidays that are not Muslim,” Khan, an English major, said. “Because my mom’s a white Christian, me and my sister still celebrate Christmas.

For Jaman, the adoption of Christmas into her holiday repertoire occurred upon her emigration to the United States from Kuwait during her senior year of high school.

Being surrounded by her mother’s family and her new Christian friends prompted her to start decking the halls.

“Everybody does it here, so we might as well expose ourselves and see how it is,” she said.

She also mentioned a desire to learn more about Christianity as a reason for joining in the Christmas spirit.

“I like to expand my horizons and expose myself to different things,” she said. “It shapes me as a person.”

The 21-year-old said celebrating Christmas allows her to become closer to her friends.

“It’s something that they celebrated all their lives and I like sharing,” she said. “You’ve got to be open to other people’s religions so they’re open to yours.”

Khan, a Stillwater, Minn., native, grew up straddling the Islamic and Christian divide. She said that Christmas was celebrated in her household as a way of strengthening the ties to her mother’s family.

“We didn’t want our family to be alienated,” she said.

The 19-year-old said instead of commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, she revels in the social trappings of the holiday, such as Santa Claus, decorated Christmas trees and time with her loved ones.

“We celebrate the more cultural aspects instead of the religious,” she said. “To me, it’s just a time for giving, for family and friends.”

Both Jaman and Khan mentioned that an Islamic counterpart to Christmas does exist. Called Eid, this three-day celebration occurs at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast every day until sundown. Eid breaks the month-long fast, and is a time for exchanging presents and giving to charity.

Because Islamic holidays are based on the Arabic calendar, the start of Ramadan moves back 10 days every year, Khan said. Sept. 13 marked the first day of Ramadan this year.

But occasionally, Ramadan and Eid coincide with the traditional holiday season. Khan said she is looking forward to this happening in the future.

“It’d be cool because everybody in my family would be celebrating at the same time,” she said. “Everybody’s in that giving time of mood.”