When most of us think of December and winter holidays in the United States, we instinctively jump to Christmas and New Year’s. But many other faiths and cultures have wintertime celebrations and religious observances – and sometimes, cultures may recognize and honor the same holiday in different ways (think: New Year’s). December is also when Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the winter solstice occur. In addition to faith celebrations, we also recognize World AIDS Day, The International Day of Disabled Persons, and other secular celebrations. How do we make sure everyone feels welcome during the most wonderful time of the year?
In the United States, about 93% of Americans celebrate Christmas either religiously or secularly. Non-Christian faiths like Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other world religions comprise less than 6% of Americans. Still, these groups often face exclusion, discrimination, and at the most extreme, religious-based hate crimes. In the workplace, unconscious bias might be one of the most significant contributors to feeling “othered” based on religion. Instead of focusing solely on Christmas, we can focus on December holidays or winter holidays, so regardless of which holiday someone observes, they remain part of the celebration.
Being inclusive of religious and cultural observances also includes the 21% of Americans who report having no faith, tradition, or religious identity. Those groups also include people who hold agnostic and atheist beliefs. No one should feel obligated to participate in an event that forces beliefs onto them or makes them feel uncomfortable. The holidays, in general, may also be a sensitive time of year for some because of trauma or bad experiences or feeling left out. For example, they may trigger bad memories or impact someone’s recovery journey with eating disorders or substance use. Either way, it’s important to have some form of nonalcoholic option at your workplace celebration.
I was once the only person in a work setting who did not celebrate or observe Christmas traditions. Although I participated in everything from the traditional meal at the holiday party to the ugly sweater contests and secret Santa gift exchange, I still felt out of place. Being of the Jewish faith, my colleagues did not even know when Hanukkah was observed or part of the holiday decor. Everything, including the sheets we filled out for the gift exchange, were red and green. Sometimes the decor is inaccurate at best and has antisemitic undertones at its worst – so it’s essential to consider not only what you celebrate but how. During that same time, I also saw the variations on how Christmas was celebrated across cultures. For example, on Christmas Eve, some of my colleagues took the day off for Nochebuena celebrations.
Sometimes, even just changing the framing of how we put on festive events during the holiday’s matters. I think of what educator Liz Kleinrock calls “de-centering Christmas” – dismantling the hierarchy that places Christmas above all other December or wintertime holidays and ensuring each type of celebration has its moment. Or we do more universal celebrations like a “White Elephant” or a festive feast.
There is no perfect guidance of how to handle religious holidays outside of the majority at other times of the year, such as if your workplace doesn’t traditionally take days off for other important religious events (such as Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, where Jewish law typically forbids work). One important thing to note, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination on the basis of religion and allows for certain rights to accommodations for observances for employers with 15 or more employees.
Regardless, enjoy this time of year and take the time to appreciate cultures and celebrations that may differ from your own. I know I am grateful for December festivities – a time with family and friends, and learning about different holidays, and starting new traditions, even before we make our resolutions for 2022.