I grew up Catholic. I went to 8 years of Catholic school, 2 years of Catholic undergrad, and a Catholic grad school, though I did not pick the two colleges because they were Catholic.
I was first introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh’s work my third semester at Mt. St. Mary College. Our amazing professor had us read Walking Meditation and The Miracle of Mindfulness. I do not remember what video she had us watch, this was 1990 probably, but when I saw Thay for the first time, I was astounded. I had never seen a person who was so happy. He was amazing. He seemed to be at such peace and his slow, soft voice, even with the Vietnamese accent, seemed to cut through a lot of nonsense and get to the essence of what is important.
Now, this was the third semester of philosophy that I had. General philosophy that I absolutely loved and General Ethics (also loved). I had never read things like Plato or Simone de Beauvoir. In one semester, I was introduced to existentialism and the next to Buddhism and I thought. . . these people are from the planet that I was meant to inhabit, as if they were long last family or they had appeared at my door to tell me they were taking me home. And from there, I have studied both subjects and have come to think of them as two sides of a coin.
Anyway, before I was done with my fourth semester, I decided to take refuge in the triple gems: The Buddha, The Sangha, and The Dharma. I know I’m not the only one to explore in college. But I had rejected the Church’s teaching very young. At one point I told my parents I would not get confirmed because I could no longer recite a prayer in good faith. So, by 8th grade at least I was setting out to find something. Between 8th grade and college I succumbed to the empty vacuum of not believing in much. And then, my wise teacher, at Catholic college helped to change my life and I will always be grateful to her and to Thich Nhat Hanh.
I share this part of my story as a set up to the real ideas I want to share. So I was a New Englander, raised Catholic, saddle shoe wearing, single in church choir and say the rosary before school girl. My family is French, English, and German and our family has been in the US since at least the Revolutionary War. So, you probably have a picture of who I might be. And if you saw me this time of year, you would not think twice before wishing me a Merry Christmas. And yet my oldest and dearest friend is Asian and you might be more inclined to hesitate saying or maybe even saying those dreaded words, “Happy Holidays”. And who would blame you. And yet the assumption that is so easy to make would be wrong. Book. . . Cover. . . You get the point. . .
I was so privileged to grow up when and how I did. Mom worked with a lovely Jewish woman who always sent Matzah home to my brother and I at passover. My friends were Polish, Irish/Italian, Laotian, Black, etc. I volunteered for the Jewish Home for the Elderly in CT. I have met a lot of people during my life that have never experienced much diversity.
And please don’t think that I was super savy. When an elderly woman at the Jewish home told me I was such a good little jewish girl, I wondered, in 8th grade, what my pastor would think. I’ve had 6 years of French and can’t speak of word of it. I’ve not traveled the world but I knew, from where I had the privilege of being born and raised, was that my experience was not everyone else’s. I knew Jews did something on Friday night but we did Mass on Sunday, sometimes Saturday. And I knew that they ate Tam Tams and Manischewitz and we had wafers and grape juice. I knew that although we were similar, we were different.
So, I say Happy Holidays, I do. I don’t feel bad for it. And I no longer get mad when people wish me a Merry Christmas. I used to get angry. I’d think who the heck are you to just assume you know me and who I am and what I believe. I’d think, who are you to think that the whole world sees everything just like you? I do sometimes still joke a work, “no I don’t want to be part of the Secret Santa. . . not my holiday”. But it is said in gest.
There are so many holidays that happen between Halloween and New Years, for so many different spiritual traditions:
Day of the Dead, Halloween, Samhain, All Soul’s Day, All Saint’s Day, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Bodhi Day, Advent, Yule, Kwanzaa, etc. All of these world religions, traditions, festivals, etc. May honor or celebrate the light that shines through our darkest time, honoring the dark, restorative winter, the bounty of year, the resolution of the past year and the readying for the new year to come. So, it’s a bit of a privileged position to think that everyone I come in contact with is going to be celebrating the same way, the same days, or celebrating at all.
I want to be inclusive. I don’t want someone to feel left out, put out. I remember my grandfather being rude to my best friend when he said that his parents were not celebrating Thanksgiving and my grandfather thought that was unheard of. It didn’t bother my friend, but it did me. I know I am not responsible for how someone feels. I even know my grandfather wasn’t being malicious but I do know how I felt when it was assumed that if you lived in our country, you must celebrate our holidays.
I love winter. I love when snow falls. I’m happier when it’s cold. I love the shift in sunlight that starts in September and changes as we go into the depth of winter and back out again just before spring. I love looking at Christmas lights. And I love my friends. I want them to know that not only do I respect their ideas and customs but also that I celebrate the differences between us. I don’t want race or religion to be something that distracts us but something that brings us closer together.
And I want to feel seen and heard. I don’t want someone to assume to know something about me before they meet me. I want to say happy holidays and acknowledge that whatever their tradition, I wish for them a warm hearth, bountiful means, never ending love and friendship, and to celebrate that no matter how much darkness we are surrounded by, at Yule or Christmas, Chanukah or the Epiphany. But I don’t want to assume I know who the stranger is in front of me; I want to welcome them to share their traditions with me.
I want to be curious. I want to let them know that I see them and don’t presume to know. I want to connect and hope someone feels welcome. So when you see me or a Jennifer in your life, or a barista or a gas station attendant, or fast food worker, or business person and they wish you a Happy Holiday, please don’t think I am (or they are) at war with your beliefs and instead am trying to honor who you are and what you believe — not matter what it is.
In light and love, Jennifer