‘Tis the season of Christmas cheer for many people around the world, but there are also millions of people who don’t celebrate the holiday. What’s the responsibility of a company to keep a religious (although heavily commercial) holiday separate from work life?
This week, psychologist Art Markman gives advice to a reader who feels bombarded by holiday cheer.
I have a problem that I feel is probably pretty common but not really talked about. I don’t celebrate Christmas (I grew up Jewish but I’m now atheist). I work for a public (not religiously affiliated) company, but Christmas is everywhere. I know that Christmas has become mostly a commercial holiday, and that’s certainly the part that’s expressed in my office (Secret Santa, Christmas decorations, etc.), but it still makes me feel really uncomfortable and left out.
I don’t talk about my religious beliefs at work because I think that’s unprofessional (and maybe illegal?), so no one really knows that I don’t celebrate Christmas, but they just assume I do. Saying “holidays” every once in a while when everything around screams Christmas doesn’t seem very inclusive, and I know I’m not the only person in the office who doesn’t celebrate Christmas. So what can I do?
You have described a problem that is much in the news these days. On the one hand, there are people who say that there is a “war on Christmas,” and are pushing for more public display and discussion that is explicitly about Christmas. On the other hand, there are a large number of non-Christians out there (both those who subscribe to other religions and those who are atheist) who are excluded by celebrations that are explicitly Christmas-focused.
In full disclosure, I am Jewish, and so I have also experienced this sense of exclusion. I think it is hard for many people who have not experienced exclusion like that in the workplace to appreciate how uncomfortable it is to be forced into someone else’s celebration.
As you point out, saying “happy holidays” doesn’t really help much. For one thing, the Jewish holiday of Chanukah is not really that important a holiday from a religious standpoint. It gains importance culturally primarily because it is near Christmas. For another, there are many people who do not celebrate any holidays in winter.
So the question is, what to do about it?
One thing that may help is to reframe the situation a bit. It may help to remember that religions co-opt ceremonies from neighboring groups (particularly when they are starting out) in order to make the religion seem more natural to people who might join it. Before Chanukah existed, there were lots of ceremonies in the surrounding cultures that celebrated the winter solstice, and many of them involved light (because of the short days). It was natural to borrow those ceremonies and rebrand them. Judaism attached a story about a minor military victory to this season. Christianity also borrowed rituals relating to light and associated them with the story of the birth of Jesus.
When you put it in this context, you realize that your participation in Christmas rituals at work is just celebrating a broader set of traditions about bringing light to the dark days of winter. These rituals have been part of human experience for millennia.
In addition, our work lives are busy and they offer few opportunities for celebrating with colleagues. Decorating the office and giving small gifts is a nice way of appreciating the people you work hard with all year. So the sentiment is a good one, even if it is wrapped up in the traditions of a particular religion.
Ultimately, I wish there was an easy way to get people to be more inclusive about traditions. Unfortunately, religion taps a lot of psychological mechanisms that create deep attachments in people. It is hard for people in a majority culture who find particular traditions or religious beliefs to be central to their core being to appreciate what it feels like to bring those traditions and beliefs to a diverse group.
Fortunately, many people are bringing these traditions into the office in the spirit of trying to make the workplace warmer and friendlier. I recommend taking the traditions and even the wishes of Merry Christmas in that spirit and enjoying the season.
Finally, you might consider adding some traditions of your own to your office. It doesn’t have to be around the winter season. You (or others who don’t celebrate Christmas) could suggest ways to liven up the workplace at other times of year that might share some of your traditions (religious or otherwise).
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