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Ethics and Religion Talk: Christmas and non-Christians

For those who are not Christian on the panel, does it bother you to see members of your religion celebrate Christmas, even if it’s only a purely secular way of doing so (a tree, Santa, gifts, etc.)? And to those who are Christian, I’d like to know if it bothers you to see non-Christians doing this?

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Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

No! I am more bothered by the reduction of Christmas to a secular holiday with no spiritual meaning.

For Roman Catholics, Christmas does not begin until the celebration of the Mass of the Nativity of the Lord on Christmas Eve. In some religious traditions, the Christmas tree does not go up until Christmas Eve. The tree remains up for the entire twelve days of Christmas. The Christmas season ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord in January.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

While Jesus does not have an “official role” in Hinduism, many devotees have embraced him, not as messiah or savior, but as a sort of “Jewish Buddha.” That is, one who attained enlightenment. While dialogues between Christians and Hindus have been ongoing for most of 2,000 years, in the 19th century many that Hindu thought leaders dived deep into studying the Gospels. Seeing that many of the teachings resonated on some level with Hindu Dharma, several devotees were inspired by Jesus, yet refuted any theology that indicated the need for salvation, eternal damnation, physical resurrection, etc. It is widely known that Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance of British occupation was in part fueled by the teachings of Jesus. 

So, yes, you will find Hindu homes with Christmas trees, visits from Santa and such. But for many, this is not simply engaging in a mere social custom. It is often done with a reverential attitude, honoring the birth of one considered holy.

The particular sect of Hinduism to which I belong encourages groups around the world to choose a day in Advent to gather for an all-day (8 hours) meditation service to celebrate a spiritual Christmas. This year will be no exception. 

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

Unitarian Universalism would mainly fall under the non-Christian category because very few of our members identify as Christian. That being said, many UUs do celebrate Christmas in some way and often in a more secular manner; like having a Christmas tree in their homes. Many UU churches hold a Christmas Eve service that focuses on a message of hope rather than the miracle stories found in the Bible.  

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

In regard to the celebration of Christmas, and especially the month-long Grand Rapids way of celebrating Christmas, I must confess that I have very mixed feelings as a Presbyterian and a Christian. Presbyterianism historically taught that there is no day to be observed by Christians as “holy unto the Lord” except the weekly Christian Sabbath. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Our Dutch Reformed brethren did have an extra church service on Christmas Day, but little more. The calendar of “special days” or “feast days” among Protestants in general has grown exponentially over the past 100 years, however. Great pressure is exerted on Presbyterians to join in, as if it were a matter of Christian duty to observe these days and seasons. Not to join in runs the risk of being called down as a “Scrooge” or a “Grinch.”

I don’t know if it is comical or tragic to see so many of my fellow Christians stressing out over gifts to buy, menus to plan, or parties to attend. In the midst of all the frenzy there is little time to give serious thought to the miracle of Christ’s incarnation, or the good news of His coming into the world to save sinners. What should be central and fundamental to Christmas becomes almost incidental, even irrelevant to the occasion. When Christmas falls on a Sunday, I have heard suggestions that we honor the birth of Christ by cancelling all church services, lest they interfere with our ​celebration.

The proof lies in the fact that many of our non-Christian neighbors can take up all the trappings of Christmas with no hint of contradiction to what they may or may not believe. Anyone can drink eggnog or munch on fruitcake! For myself I have no objection, but I do wish less money was spent, less events were scheduled, and more thought was given to the person, work, and teachings of the One whose birth is being commemorated.

My response:

I understand that children who have parents of different faiths often celebrate holidays with the non-Jewish members of their family. Nonetheless, I am saddened when families who are raising Jewish children celebrate Christmas, because it means that they are not finding complete religious fulfillment within their own tradition. Judaism has a rich set of holidays and there is nothing found in a secular celebration of Christmas that cannot be found in our own celebrations.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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