Whenever December rolls around, I can’t help but think about Christmas. I have ambiguous feelings about it – my family celebrated it when I was a kid in Massachusetts, but when I was 11 we moved to Tokyo and it was never the same – I think my dad even had to go to work! Even after we moved back to the US, we never really celebrated Christmas anymore, especially not like we used to.
It seems that there are several possible Buddhist reactions to Christmas. The most common one that I see is to just do it unproblematically. In this case it’s not the Christian version of Christmas that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, it is what we might call either the Pagan or secular version with Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, and of course PRESENTS!
Another response I have seen is to try and integrate it somehow with Buddhism, for instance, having a “Bodhi Tree” instead of a Christmas Tree, using a Dharma Wheel or other Buddhist symbols as ornaments, or conflating Santa Claus with Hotei, the smiling monk with a cloth sack who entertains children.
The third possible response is to reject Christmas. I have heard stories that this was much more common in BCA temples before I got involved in the 1990s. It does still exist here and there – sometimes we put Christmas lights on the Bodhi Tree in the office, and I have heard one or two people say “We don’t celebrate Christmas” with the implication that we shouldn’t have the lights.
Which option do you choose? I have taken all three at different points in my life. When I was a student I used to contemplate integrating it (that’s when I came up with the Hotei idea) – in the years since, I just kind of accept the secular version. But I also appreciate the attitude of rejecting it. I remember having Jewish friends when I was a kid that didn’t celebrate it at all – I found out that they would often go to Chinese restaurants because those were the only ones that were open. If I am truly Buddhist, why would I need Christmas? The United States of America is supposed to be a land of freedom and diversity – I embrace the difference that I embody as a multiracial person and as a follower of a minority religion, and I shouldn’t have to celebrate Christmas.
But I also get that one of the most important aspects of Christmas for many of our members is FAMILY. Maybe we can appropriate Christmas as part of the Gratitude Season that I have written about before – spend it with the people you love, and express that love and appreciation, allowing it to energize us through the winter so that we can face the New Year with the renewed hope and inspiration given to us by the Wisdom and Compassion of the Buddha.
(Reprinted from Buddhist Church of Oakland Busshin Newsletter, Dec. 2017)