Shirin and Hasan, a Muslim couple, have been having a conflict over whether to put or not to put a Christmas tree in their living room so their two children, 6 and 8 years old, may feel included in what appears to be an actual event everybody talks about and also expect the visit from Santa on Christmas night bringing them gifts they can show off to their friends. Hasan says Christmas is a Religious Christian holiday. Although we do believe in the truth of the Revelation of Christ as Muslims, we believe Muhammad has come after Christ to fulfill and update the teachings of Christ. That means we have the Muslim holidays to celebrate, and our children need to be OK with us not celebrating everyone else’s religious holidays, be it Hanukkah and Christmas or Diwali!!. Shirin argues that their family will not be celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday but rather as just something most people do in the US. Shirin worries about their children feeling left out and sad about not receiving any gifts, while most of their friends talk about the Christmas tree and sing Christmas songs in school, and share how excited they are to wake up Christmas morning and see what gifts Santa has brought them!
In the global diversity of religions and cultures in the US and around the world, Hasan and Shirin are not the only parents who have to wrestle with the issue of doing as everyone does or suffering being the outsider and a minority within a dominant culture. What is the responsibility of parents who care about the spiritual and religious identity of their children in a multicultural and evolving world?
The following article recently attracted much attention on social media, telling how much parents are looking for a unifying answer regarding Santa Clause.
Children will benefit from a commitment and regard to truth and genuine regard to principles by their parents from childhood. Truth-telling, like any other virtue, relates to our core values and respective virtues such as knowledge, wisdom, spiritual perception, generosity, compassion, integrity, trustworthiness, humanity, etc. That means telling the truth in children evolves with their readiness and capacity to understand its function in their relations and its importance in becoming worthy of their neighbors’ trust. Celebrating the birth of the founder of one of the world religions without authenticity and genuine regard for its teachings falls short of teaching our children always make their choices based on a sense of conviction and principle!
Telling a child that people love those who care about others and are generous and giving is good at any age. Educating children about the joy of being welcoming, generous, and kind is a process that takes time, patience, and repetition. The expectation of children to be generous must depend on how developmentally they can make sense of the concept and be willing and able to try it. A one-year-old does not appreciate the demand of sharing their food with another without proper preparation and consideration. A toddler may entertain the act of giving in the context of a game of giving a sibling a bite from its plate and having fun with it. This way, the little one becomes introduced to the sweet feeling of sharing a piece of bread with his older sister or the puppy he loves.
Religion is about cultivating spiritual distinction that makes us more God-like. Celebration of a religious holiday is a focused time to be mindful of who we are as spiritual beings. Religious holidays should teach us not just about the unique history and traditions of each religious period but the universal God-like values that unite all of us as an ongoing and evolving civilization. Parents and schools are best to pay respect to the history and teachings of all religious traditions by educating children about the history, teachings, calendar, and holidays of our world religions as soon as the children are ready to digest that they belong to a global community that must learn the way of unity in diversity.
I remember in the elementary school years of my children. I used to offer a course on world calendars in their social studies program every year. Since we are Baha’is, I would make a puppet show on the history and celebration of Naw-Ruz; the Baha’i New Year. I would take lemonade and cookies to share. The students got to learn something about world culture in a fun way, and my children learned how to share their particular time of the year. In the meantime, they felt proud they could offer something to their friends instead of feeling isolated and left out as if living in a closet. Even today, when I come across some of those kids after 20 years, they talk about their fond memories of my visits to Naw-Ruz!
Children do not suffer set back if we accustom them to difficulties and support their resilience. Abdu’l-Baha talks about the importance of children being accustomed to hardship. Children develop a sense of their spiritual self and latent capacities. Like young students training for a sport, we need to support them as they push their limits and learn t aim for the second wind. They will learn to be outspoken, upfront, and resilient if parents and mentors lovingly guide them, to be honest, and firm, and stand their ground when it comes to their principles and universal moral values. Being a follower is not always an excellent guiding attribute. There will come a time that we hope our children take the lead rather than be led by their peers. We serve our future generation best by teaching them critical thinking skills and the courage not to consent to what others dictate but to stand firm by what they believe is suitable for all humanity.
Gift giving happens in all religious traditions to connect the heart of the gift giver and receiver to the spiritual principles of generosity and love taught by all religions. Turning gift giving and generosity in any religious context, such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Naw-Ruz, etc., into an exclusive and materialistic exercise to bring excitement to the junior hijacks the inner meaning out of the occasion. The child gets a high from a thing without feeling connected to the spirit and message of the event!
I remember a delightful story from one of my grandchildren around age 4 when she was approached in preschool by another kid who wanted to take her toy by force or threat. When the bullying kid was unsuccessful, she got up and threatened my granddaughter: If you do not give me that toy, Santa will not bring you anything!! My granddaughter already knew Santa was an imaginary figure believed mostly by Christian children to bring them gifts in celebration of Christmas. She also knew she was a Baha’i and celebrated Naw-Ruz, the first day of Spring, as Baha’i New Year, and Ayyam-I-Ha, four days preceding the first day of Spring, as gift sharing and time for friendship and hospitality. In response to the classmate’s threat that Santa would not come and bring her a toy, my granddaughter hung tight to her toy, shrugged her shoulders, and said: heh, I am a Baha’i!
The metaphor of an imaginary excellent, kind, and unconditionally giving figure like Santa, God, or any other traditional religious figure, is best introduced to children in a spiritual context to teach about a divine virtue such as giving and sharing joy. Parents and children of diverse cultures and religions can enjoy talking about the many luminaries and manifestations of the spirit of giving, sacrifice, service, kindness, compassion, nobility, humanity, wisdom, forbearance, love for all humanity, justice, generosity, and many more spiritual perfections taught and practiced in all religions of God in all cultures. This focus on celebrating our universal desire to do good, be good, and receive goodness rather than goods, bring all of us a sense of belonging, assurance, spiritual empowerment, and the joy of experiencing unity in the diversity of all humanity.
Introducing spiritual values to children as a universal human capacity and practice prepare our children from childhood to reflect on their capacity and opportunities of doing good by bringing joy to the heart of others. Sharing stories of how different cultures and religions practice goodness and kindness towards others teaches children how they belong to a diverse global community, unity in diversity, oneness of all religions, oneness of God, and oneness of all humanity. Teaching our children about the universality of our humanity prompts all children to grow and take pride in making a difference in making this world a better place for all humanity. A good example is the young Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg (born 3 January 2003), a Swedish environmental activist on climate change whose campaigning has gained international recognition.
Teaching children that every person is born to take joy in giving more so than in receiving by offering them global opportunities of giving plants in their hearts the love of virtue of serving others and kindness to all. They learn by experience that all people believe it is in giving that we receive. No matter what culture and religion we practice, our children can be enriched by learning from the diversity of cultures when they are invited to practice the process of giving. All cultures have developed in many diverse ways. They learn that the spirit of Santa is a universal spirit, after all, practiced in different manners.
What could be added to the story of Christmas and Santa is a vision of a sustainable future for all humanity living in peace and harmony on our fragile planet. Santa will not serve any of us if it becomes associated only with an increasing appetite for things, reducing the celebration of the birth of Christ to an excitement associated with receiving things only if you are Christian or pretend you are one!!
A beautiful song called Change the World was; was recently shared with me as an artistic expression of our universal capacity to bring about unity in diversity and global peace. This wonderful video speaks to the art of being engaged in the global spiritual and moral celebration service to humanity in a most delightful way. In a world suffering from an increasing and disintegrating divide born of our multiple lower identities of religion, nationality, class, color, gender, etc., a global spiritual integrated education through art is a need to bring all of us together in celebration of our humanity as our highest identity.
I enjoyed reading many of the heartfelt comments including the one bellow:
A licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for over 20 years, specializes in using the Bahá’í Teachings to identify theories, techniques, and approaches that produce the best results for her clients. She is the founder and executive director of the Center for Global Integrated Education, a non-profit Bahá’í-inspired educational organization.