After the Christmas holidays, a common question is “What did you do for Christmas?” Snéha Khilay reflects on the role such celebrations play in cultivating a sense of ‘sameness’ and belonging.
I attended schools which predominantly consisted of white pupils. The epitome of being included, that I belonged and therefore was part of a crowd, was based on whether and how I celebrated Christmas. I looked different to everyone else and did not have the same diet as others as I was the only vegetarian. At the time I could not pronounce words like ‘trousers’ or ‘measure’ which created fits of giggles amongst my school friends whenever I said the words. In essence, I was different.
After the Christmas holidays, my friends would ask what I had done and about the presents I had received. Over the years, I managed to cultivate an acceptable answer – that I spent time with my family, watched a lot of television and ate a lot of food. In terms of presents, I would recite the list of clothes that my parents had bought me in the sales. A nodding of heads, an understanding and a connection; I was doing the same as my friends had done, I was included. This connection would be momentary as I would then be asked “Ah, but do you have a Christmas tree?” to which I would have to answer “No”. Their silence in response meant that the connection of sharing the joys of Christmas had been broken. During my time in school, my other differences had to be kept under wraps, for instance, I could not celebrate Diwali or other religious events with my friends.
Fast forward 20-30 years in time and we live in a different world. We had changes in the legislation and multiculturalism became a cause or reason for celebration. It was apparently even used as a selling point for UK hosting the 2012 Olympics. In other ways, there has been a turnaround with the ongoing controversy as to whether colleagues can wish each other ‘Happy Christmas’ and with Christmas parties sometimes referred to as ‘End of Year’ or ‘Winter’ parties. These parties are not really only about celebrating religion, they are about improving staff morale and loyalty and to thank employees for their hard work and effort. The business related cards, though sent in December, no longer say ‘Happy Christmas’ but ‘Season’s Greetings’, with care taken to ensure that there is no (Christian) religious symbolism.
The underlying message for organisations and politicians seems to be the need to indicate that as we are multicultural and multinational, we aim to be inclusive. It is recognised that multiculturalism works when diversity is acknowledged and options are offered. This provides non-Christians, atheists and theists, with a way to avoid Christmas altogether or observe it in their own ways. However, people in the UK are allowed to use any greeting that they want and the perceived possibility of taking offence to ‘Merry Christmas’ has been overrated.
From a personal perspective, I happily give out Diwali sweets to friends, whether they are Hindu or not. In turn, some of these friends wish me Happy Diwali by sending me Diwali cards bought from Tesco or Marks and Spencer. Having a family in the UK meant that I did not want my children to go through what I had. I have adopted the Christmas rituals; an elaborate Christmas lunch although no turkey for me as I continue to be a vegetarian. But we certainly have all the other trimmings such as decorations, crackers and the Queen’s speech in the background. We even have a Secret Santa as a ritual and exchanging presents with family and friends is considered a given. And I sometimes even have a Christmas tree!
On the flip side, some of some of my ‘Christian’ friends who religiously (pun intended) celebrated Christmas now prefer to either be in a warm climate such as Thailand, Bali, Florida during the Christmas break or prefer to spend the day just relaxing. Some even prefer to buy Christmas presents during the sales thereby saving money. In effect, they do not want to be part of the commercialisation associated with Christmas.
We are all different. We think differently, live differently and respond differently. The spirit of the Christmas season is about giving each other as much freedom and space as possible to express this. As Desmond Tutu said, “Let there be more compassion and understanding during this time of the year.”
Snéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk.