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December 24th, 2011
10:00 PM ET

'What's Christmas without chopsticks?' How other faiths celebrate December 25th

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) -
Two days before Christmas, Imam Mohamed Magid, the executive director at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, preached about Jesus at Friday prayers.

"We live in a country with a majority of Christians, where Christmas is a major holiday... It's a reminder we do believe in Jesus. Jesus' position in Islam is one of the highest prophets in Islam," Magid said, adding that Muslims view Jesus as a prophet on par with Abraham, Moses, Noah and Mohammad.

Often when he says the name of Mohammad or Jesus in conversation, Magid adds the Islamic honorific "Peace be upon him" after his name.

"Jesus is a unifying figure, unifying Muslims and Christians," he said. The Quran, the Islamic scriptures, makes specific mention of Jesus and of his mother Mary. "It's very interesting that there are many places where the prophet (Mohammad) is quoting Jesus."

Christmas has a way of bleeding into other faiths in America.  The Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger in Bethlehem 2000 some odd years ago is ubiquitous across the country, even if the American tradition has leaned away from the sacred and toward the secular.

Christmas at every corner can be somewhat problematic for those who are not in the estimated 246 million Christians living in the United States.  But for some faiths, the season brings reminders of their own traditions.

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Magid said Muslims believe many of the same things about Jesus that Christians do: Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, he lived a sinless life, he raised the dead, and he preformed miracles. He also said many Muslim scholars believe that Jesus will one day return to the earth, using the Christian vocabulary of "the Second Coming."

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"Certain aspects of our theology are different," he carefully notes, pointing specifically to incarnation, the Christian belief that Jesus was divine. Muslims are perhaps the most ardent monotheists in the world, making them at odds with Christians theologically over not only the Christian doctrine of incarnation, but also belief in the Trinity, that God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus are three in one.

The All Dulles Area Muslim Society is one of the largest Muslim congregations in the country with ties to 5,000 families in the Washington area. Some of the families do put up a Christmas tree and exchange gifts, which one member suspects is often more about cultural assimilation than religious observance.

"I think Muslims, although they believe in Jesus, they give respect to this as a Christian holiday, so they don't pretend to celebrate this in a religious way," Magid said. "A Muslim would not expect a Christian to celebrate his holiday."

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At the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery three hours north of San Francisco, there is a small Christmas tree set up near the statue of the Buddha.

"Normally we just have flowers, incense and candles, but now we have a tiny Christmas tree. It's really cute," Ajhan Yatiko, a monk in residence who is originally from Canada, said. "It's more like a traditional thing, respecting and appreciating the culture of where we live."

During the holidays, Yatiko said, "The senior monk might give a talk to the lay people which might draw parallels between the Christian faith and the Buddhist faith, as well as the differences, because I think both of those are important aspects of interfaith harmony.

"Sometimes in the West these days there's a kind of tendency to clump all the religions together and say, 'We're all climbing the same mountain,' and I think the intention there is nice. There's a harmonious intention there. But I think it's much nicer to say, 'Let's respect the differences and love and appreciate the differences of the other faiths," Yatiko said.

For the monks at Abhayagiri, life is spent in meditation, community, celibacy and work. They practice Buddhism in the Theravada tradition or the Thai Forest tradition. In their faith tradition, monks cannot handle money, grow their own food or trade, so they live entirely off of the generosity of others.

That means every half moon, about once a week, they head into town for alms rounds, where they walk around in their saffron robes with alms bowls to collect donations. The new moon this week fell on Christmas Eve.

"Everyone we see is going to be wishing us a Merry Christmas, and we'll be doing likewise," Yatiko said a few days before Christmas.

"We don't touch money and live a very simple lifestyle, so the Christmas tradition of exchanging gifts doesn't work so well for us," Yatiko said.

Yet Buddhists are called to live generously at every chance, be it in material things or spiritual ones, so at Christmastime the monks bring a truckload of fire wood and a fruit basket to a neighboring Ukrainian Catholic monastery.

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"We do have some rather revered traditions for Christmas Day," said Rabbi Rick Rheins.  "I'm not sure if it was Talmudic or not, to visit the movie theater followed by a Chinese dinner," joked Rheins referring the collection of ancient rabbi teaching called the Talmud.

"What's Christmas without chopsticks?" joked Rheins who is the head of Denver's Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation of about 1,100 families.

"We acknowledge the importance of this day for our Christian neighbors and for my Christian colleagues. And so we don't celebrate Christmas as Jews, but we do thrill for our Christian neighbors," he said. Rheins said the celebration of Hanukkah simultaneously at Christmastime this year will mean he won't be bringing in any Christmas metaphors into services on Friday and Saturday.

As for the Christmas Day itself, including the popcorn and chopsticks, he said, "We encourage our members to do special volunteer work to relieve our Christian neighbors of their responsibilities, whether it's at hospitals or emergency services, to give them the opportunity to spend this time with their family and celebrate this sacred day for them.

"Christians and Jews, especially over the last generation, have really worked so hard to build bridges, not just of tolerance, but also have generated true mutual respect and cooperation," he said. He cited working to fight hunger and poverty together. "These are the expressions of a society where the differences in religion and the expressions of one's faith are less divisive than they are enriching.

"I don't think that was the case a generation ago," Rheins said.

Christmas has a way of seeping into Hindu traditions, as well. At least the tree and presents part.  "Because of the children," Uma Mysorekar, the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America said.

"The children say, 'Oh, there's a tree in my friend's house.  Why not in my house?' So they will get a small tree, a symbolic tree," Mysorekar said.

"We do look up to Jesus as one of the deities of Christianity," Mysorekar said.

At the Hindu Temple Society of North America in the Flushing area of Queens, New York, Christmas Day will be filled with worshipers coming in and out.  Unlike other faiths, Hindus do not have a set day for communal worship.  The temple is a key part of Hinduism for prayer, worship and offerings.  Christmas will be busier because of the three day weekend, Mysorekar guessed.

Their temple even had a holiday party for the children.

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"We have a holiday party for them, and we give them gifts and tell them what it's all about.  You know the Hindu festival of Diwali, it is more or less the same, where we give gifts and we meet with friends... So the custom is very easy to relate to."

During Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, lamps are lit in celebration of good triumphing over evil.

"Apart from the religious aspect of it - the concept, theme of Christmas - I think it's very much the same all over," she said.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Buddhism • Christianity • Christmas • Hinduism • Islam

soundoff (2,252 Responses)
  1. Truthz

    CLAIM TO BE ALL LOVING... KILL BUNCH OF PEOPLE FOR NOT SMEARING BLOOD ON DOORS

    December 25, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  2. lefty avenger

    Jesus was a jewish rabbi who was a rebel. He wanted everyone, no matter what their social class to be treated fairly. Jesus believed in universal health care, feeding and housing poor and no cover charge at the temple. Jesus was the original socialist. A nice guy who wanted to help people, he threatened the corporate oligarchy establishment. If Jesus was around today he would have joined the occupy wall street protests. In fact if Jesus returned today to help people, the very christian corporate establishment would kill him again, much like Gandhi. Jesus was against war and violence and most christians today in america love violence and war. I don't believe in the hypocrisy of the Christian war machine but Jesus did have a very nice message before the religion and witch burnings were established.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • jordan

      I also feel this way.I am of the Jewish Faith.I do respect my fellow human beings and their beliefs whatever the religion.
      Jesus was a great prophet with a great message 1,000's of years ahead of his time.
      He probably would be a kind of OCCUPY Type.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • B

      So the Christians killed Jesus. Your ignorance astounds me my friend. Rome wasn't a Christian establishment however the Pharisee and saghisees were in complete control and called directly for Christ crucifixion . No one did anything that he didn't allow to happen.Merry Christmas

      December 25, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  3. Truthz

    BILLIONS OF PRAYERS FOR PEACE... IGNORE

    December 25, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  4. Truthz

    I HAVE A DIVINE PLAN... PRAY TO ME ANYWAY

    December 25, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  5. Truthz

    MAKE OLD TESTAMENT... IGNORE SOME OF IT

    December 25, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • B

      Old testament is living under the law. How's that working out for you. No temple, No high priest , just you and the law. We will both be judge difference is Jesus came to settle your sin debt for breaking Gods law. You will stand before God with no intercession just guilt. Hell is separation from God for eternity.Dont just post comments to justify your sin. Just repent and know that Christ died for everyone. Not the Jew or the Muslim or the Gentile. Everyone!

      December 25, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  6. Rainer Braendlein

    @TruthPrevails

    I wish you a merry Christmas too.

    Note: A Babbitt is not yet a Christian. Christianity is more than not committing crimes, but active love.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Okay, to clarify my understanding of christians in jail...a lot of people will convert to christianity while in prison in order to show remorse. In that case I would have to agree that they are not being true. I know plenty of good christians in this world...people who good for the sake of doing good, not for the sake of looking good in the eyes of their god. Then again I know plenty of bad christians also...people who believe that when the bible says to beat your children, you must follow it. In the end it doesn't matter what your belief is, every single human has the propensity to be good or bad....it really is a matter of personal morals.
      Enjoy this day...we celebrate for the love of family and friends and enjoy it for that purpose, so I wish you nothing but the best this season and in 2012.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  7. Truthz

    CHILDREN MOCK PROPHET... SEND BEARS TO TEAR THEM APART

    December 25, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  8. Truthz

    Give free will... punish for eating apples

    December 25, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  9. B

    This is not true. Muslims do not believe in the Virgin Birth. If they believed that they would have to believe that Christ was born by the seed of women and not man therefore undoubtably and irrevocably is the Son of God and Saviour of Mankind. FYI ask the Iman what the Koran says should happen to a Muslim that converts to Christianity. It says that they should be Killed. The bible speaks of times when false prophets will be a sign in the last days.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  10. LookAndSEE

    Most of u are probably not Roman Catholic and would never celebrate Mass at u're local Catholic Church but u celebrate Chist-MASS @ home.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  11. Truthz

    Claim to love all... send those to hell who do not believe I'm real

    December 25, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  12. Sherman

    The tree is so pagan and therefore close to all our hearts as we once were tribal, pagan, nature provided all the gods then. No one sits in judgement of the amount of love we can give to one another. This could well be the year we stop fooling around and test our abilities to co-create good.
    After all the ultimate evil is now behind us.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  13. Truthz

    Day 1, make light... Day 3, make light source

    December 25, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  14. scole

    Hesus- I am too busy celebrating Christmas don't feel like arguing, your'e still an idiot though 🙂

    December 25, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  15. Rainer Braendlein

    What is the actual advance of Christianity, when it is compared with other religions???

    God's Christmas present for us: He gives us forgiveness and the power to keep the law together as a unit and for free.

    The most striking difference between Christianity and other faiths like Catholicism:

    In contrast to other religions (of the law) Christians don't try to gain salvation by doing good deeds or keeping the law, but Christians follow Jesus (that comprises the fulfillment of the law by Christian love), because God loved them first.

    Jesus yet loved us, when we still were sinners or enemies of God. Despite our sinful state Jesus died for us. That means he gave us an extremly high advance of love, which we had not deserved at all, but punishment.

    Don't let us try to gain God's favour by good deeds, but let us do good deeds after God has given us his favour for free. That is the gosple of Jesus Christ.

    Christmas: God loved us first. God loves YOU now! Give Him an appropriate answer!

    The divine interpretation of the Old Testament law (Torah) is the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus (Matthew 5-7).

    Hence, the fulfillment of the law is love to God and the neighbour according to the Sermon on the Mount.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • JohnR

      That's an advance?

      December 25, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • John Gault

      Blah, Blah, Blah....

      December 25, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @JohnR

      Yes, it is.

      Look at St. Paul. He was a radical or fanatical Jew, before he became a Christian. As long as St. Paul was called Saul he persecuted the Christian Church and thought it to be right. He had no bad conscience. Saul ever wanted to keep the law, but as long as he was no Christian he broke the law by killing people. Before St. Paul became a Christian he had no power to keep the law or to understand it correctly and thus he even supported the assassination of Christians.

      I as a Christian would never kill a believer of another faith. I intend to invite my Muslim neigbours for dinner. If I would know a Jew I would also love him and seek for company with him.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  16. TheMovieFan

    First of all, I'd like to point out first that I am a strong believer of separation of church and state. My wife is a kindergarten teacher and there have been a few years where one non-Christian child would tell all the other kids that Santa is not real. When she would speak to that kid's parents about it, they'd think its not a big deal and/or that it is about time those kids knew the truth anyhow...as if they have the right to judge that for all the other parents.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • JohnR

      You know, around that age, there will always be some kids who make fun of others for still believing in Santa. And it won't always be non-Christian kids doing the mocking. Indeed, it's pretty funny that Christian kids ever do believe in Santa Claus. Few things about Christmas are less biblical than Santa!

      December 25, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  17. Bohemer

    Xmas is celebrated in various ways abroad but in the USA, the overwhelming tendency is to head to a shopping mall with mob-like mentality.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  18. Arto Tavukciyan

    I would like to ask CNN on Christmas Day, the holiest day of the year for Christians, WHY is there is a Star of David on a Christmas tree?

    December 25, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Truthz

      hmmm, maybe cause thatz what the article is about... Different faith's take on Christmas. Stupid roody-poo

      December 25, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • LookAndSEE

      Remember how the wise men followed the STAR to Bethlehem.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • LookAndSEE

      This is one of the few Biblical truths to the Christmas story. That is how the devil works the best, mixing truth with error. It looks more innocent to the Protestants(non Catholic).

      December 25, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Hulot

      It’s called subliminal propaganda. Even on Christmas the machine never stops.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Hulot

      What’s the message? Even on Christmas, Judaism trumps Christianity

      December 25, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Sillyme

      ummm...... *Slowly raises hand while looking around* ya know Jesus was a jew right?

      December 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  19. LookAndSEE

    Just a note to the average reader. Not all Christians celebrate Christmas. It's PAGAN. It's ROMAN CATHOLIC!
    The Bible gives NO suggestion to celebrate Christ birth. Dec 25 is the birth of the sun, not the Son of God.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • kr

      The truth is for Catholic Christians, the resurrection is the most important event in the Jesus story. The birth of Jesus was not too important in early Universal (Catholic) Christianity (there were no Protestants and Evangelicals then and those small Christians sects now) when they were still persecuted in the Roman Empire. Early Christians forgot and did not know the exact date of Jesus birth so they decided to choose 25 December. Its better to celebrate Jesus birth than not to celebate at all even when do not know the exact date.

      December 25, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  20. Truthz

    I use to enjoy Christmas... But then I took an arrow to the knee.

    December 25, 2011 at 9:22 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.