Not just Christmas

The Douglas firs have all been (hopefully) recycled, the nicer gift bags folded away for next year, and the mechanical reindeer corralled back into their storage sheds. Our skinny jeans are feeling particularly restrictive, and our resolutions have been made and possibly, already broken. 2017 taught us much about personal and worldly disparities to  overcome in 2018. This year, let’s all make an effort to lessen the misunderstanding between individuals and peoples of varying cultures by learning a bit more about how MC’s less acknowledged religions impacted students over their Christmas, I mean winter, breaks.

Senior Nathan Schwedock,  celebrated the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and proves that eight candles can hold more meaning than a house decked in Christmas lights.

“I like the way the menorah looks when have all eight candles lit,” Schwedock said. “The meaning behind the eight candles is that, back in history, [the Jewish rebels against the Greek tyrant, Damascus] were running out of oil. They used their last night’s worth of oil, and it lasted for eight nights. That’s what gave birth to the miracle of Hanukkah. We light a candle for each night that the candle lasted.”

Compared to the millions of biannual church attendees’ Christmas celebrations (Easter marks the second lug to the pews), Schwedock’s Hanukkah may strike gentiles as more religion-oriented. Perhaps it’s just the Hebrew that makes Hanukkah songs feel heavier in meaning than Christmas hymns.

Senior Nathan Schwedock | Photo credit Francesca

“There are only a few prayers that we have to recite for Hanukkah, and personally, I don’t even know what they mean,” Schwedock said. “I just remember how they’re said. “I recite them because I just remember the prayers, and that’s how it is for Christians, sometimes. My special language just happens to be a different one.”

It’s too bad that more Americans don’t understand Hebrew; if they did, a Hanukkah song more popular than “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” migh have been produced. Seeing as Jews constitute  2.2% of the American adult population, Jewish songwriters instead wrote for the masses. “Winter Wonderland”, “The Christmas Song”, and even the best selling single of all time, “White Christmas”, were written by Jews. A holiday Snapchat news article suggested that the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is about a closet gay. It’s possible, but the fact is, Rudolph’s red nose symbolizes the nose that Jewish creator Robert May was mocked for in his childhood. None of this irony seems to shake Schwedock, however.

“There are some Jewish songs, but the reason they’re not really known is because they’re really childish and not really fun to sing or listen to when you’re grown up,” Schwedock said. “But then again, we also have Adam Sandler’s ‘The Hanukkah Song’ each year, so that’s a good make-up for it.”

Really, Christmas and Hanukkah were never meant to compete with one another; it’s more like bad timing.

“It’s actually not even that big in Israel,” Schwedock said. “It’s really only big here because Christmas is celebrated here.”

The separate celebrations collide for many non-Christians because of this, and Schwedock and his “Jew crew” have no problem participating in some of the festivities.

“Sometimes we go to a White Elephant party– sometimes called a Secret Santa, but we don’t have a secret Jewish santa, so we call it a White Elephant party,” Schwedock said. “It’s nice to share gifts. I haven’t been going to them recently since everyone is age 60 and up.”

Schwedock’s situation resonates with the universally dreaded Christmas dinner at Granny’s house.

Senior Saiyara Alam comes from a practicing Muslim family, but annually puts up a Christmas tree in her room and, like Schwedock,  exchanges gifts with her friends.

In 2017, the Islamic holiday of Shab e Miraj fell on April 23, as the date changes each year according to the Lunar Year. On Shab e Miraj, Muslims around the world pray for an entire night. The most devout may read the entire Koran. Alam herself can read, but not understand, Arabic; this does not prevent participation in the practices for Alam because, like Christmas, one of the main points of the event is to spend it with loved ones.

“It’s peaceful. Not everyone is awake at this time,” Alam said. “It’s you and your close ones all together trying to think of all good things. Family members will tell stories about Mohammed and the night that he went to go visit Allah, and then we’ll pray. It’s said to be that if you pray that night, all night, all your sins will vanish.”

Senior Saiyara Alam | Photo credit Francesca Hodges

Although there are breaks and hesitation in some parts of her retelling, Alam can communicate the generals of the story that Shab e Miraj is centered around.

“It’s about when our religion first came about,” Alam said. “A magical creature came down and took [Muhammad] past the seven skies to go see Allah, who gave him all the rules for the religion. You were supposed to pray 1000 times a day back then, until Allah took it down to five times a day.”

Though she loosely knows the history of Islam, Alam questions many of its rules, especially the restrictions placed on women, that her mother has taught her. Despite this, Alam will continue to look forward to and pray every year on Shab e Miraj. She mainly savors in the joy that her holiday’s traditions bring her and the general warmth that is attached to them.

“At first when you start to pray, you get nervous because you think, ‘I have to do this all night’, but once you get into the groove of it, time passes by so quickly,” Alam said. “It’s like a meditation almost. Sometimes you’ll fall asleep when you’re praying. When you awake, you feel so good that it almost feels fake. It’s almost like you woke up from hibernation and were refreshing yourself. You’re not thinking of all the hectic stuff around us, just where it originated.”

During Christmas, Alam is less content with her surroundings.

“I do feel left out in the sense that everyone’s coming together as a family, sitting around the Christmas tree, and eating dinner because that’s something [Muslims are] not really meant to participate in,” Alam said. “My dad doesn’t approve of Christmas at all because he’s extremely religious, and he doesn’t want to see a Christmas tree, even. It’s weird with everyone in the family not agreeing.”

Alam’s more rigidly religious home makes combining America’s most wonderful time of the year with a household that does not endorse Christmas a precarious struggle. Alam understands the disagreement, noting that America is not the only country that can celebrate its holiday on a grand scale.

“It makes sense because the majority of the country is Christian, not Muslim,” Alam said. “In Bangladesh, you’ll hear azan (the Islamic call to worship) ringing literally throughout the country, but that’s because most of the population is Muslim.”

While both Alam and Schwedock would appreciate a bit more national recognition for their religious practices, they do not feel that growing up in a culture that revolves around Christmas as if the holiday is the Messiah Himself has subtracted from their personal enjoyment of the holiday season.

“I think of it as everyone else is left out on Hanukkah,” Schwedock said.





Written by Evelyne Eng

Evelyne Eng is a senior at Mt. Carmel High School.

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