Naturally, at this festive time of year, people like to ask whether or not Bahá’ís celebrate Christmas. And the simple answer is: No. Yes. Sort of. Sometimes. It depends.
How's that for definitive?
The confusion here, I think, lies more in the question itself than in the answer. My befuddled answer above is appropriate to the question, "Do Bahá’ís celebrate Christmas?" because that particular question is really an umbrella for several related-but-different questions.
To clear things up, I thought I'd try to break it down to the best of my ability (with the caveat that these answers are based on my own understanding, which is hardly infallible). So here are some questions that are usually wrapped up in the more general question of whether or not Bahá’ís celebrate Christmas, and my undoubtedly imperfect answers to those questions.
Do Bahá’ís believe in Christ?
Yes, we do.
Here is a synopsis of the Bahá’í view of Jesus:
So yes, we revere and adore Christ, and believe in Him as a Divine Messenger of God. (For more info about the Bahá’í relationship to Christianity, go here.)
Do Bahá’ís celebrate Christmas as a religious community?
No, we don't. We accept Christ wholeheartedly, and therefore honor the celebration of His birth, but we do not celebrate Christmas as a community. We accept and honor Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Muhammad, and other Divine Messengers as well, and if we celebrated all of their births and other holy days associated with each of them . . . well, we'd be partying all year long. And as fun as that sounds, it doesn't really make sense logistically. And it wouldn't make sense to only celebrate some and not the others. So as a community, we only celebrate the holy days and holidays associated with the Bahá’í calendar.
But CAN Bahá’ís celebrate Christmas?
Yes, and many of us do joyfully celebrate Christmas with our families and friends who do so. As individuals, we are free to partake in any religious activities that don't directly interfere with the Bahá’í teachings. In fact, sharing one another's spiritual traditions is one of the best ways to form bonds of fellowship and unity among people of all faiths, which is one of the central teachings of Bahá'u'lláh: "Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship."
So do Bahá’ís have Christmas trees, bake Christmas cookies, put up Christmas lights, exchange Christmas gifts, etc.?
Maybe. Sometimes. Sort of. It depends. Part of what gets confusing is that Christmas has really become a cultural holiday for many people. Every atheist and agnostic I know still puts up a Christmas tree, sings Christmas songs, and gives Christmas gifts. For most Christians, it's a very holy holiday. For non-religious folk, it's a time for family and tradition. For Bahá’ís, it's sort of both and sort of neither, depending on what angle you're looking from.
I know some Bahá’í families who put up Christmas trees, but I would say most do not. I personally LOVE a good cookie exchange. Some Bahá’ís exchange gifts with their families and circles of friends, especially those whose extended families are not Bahá’ís. We have a major gift-giving holiday called Ayyam-i-Ha at the end of February, so we usually save the big gift-giving until then.
How about Santa?
You know, I have to admit something that's going to irk some people. As an adult and a parent, I kind of hate Santa. (This is not official Bahá’í teaching, here, just so we're clear.) I think Saint Nicholas (the real one) was a wonderful inspiration, giving generously to the poor and saving young girls from having to prostitute themselves.
But the Santa that we've traditionalized doesn't, in my eyes, hold up so well under much scrutiny. First, he supposedly only gives gifts to kids who are good. Well, there goes the teaching of generosity to all. Second, he breaks into your house at night. Just a wee bit creepy. Third, in any other context, an old man asking children he doesn't know to come sit on his lap and offering them candy would be . . . well, creepy. Fourth, the tendency to lie to children to keep the fantasy going gives me pause. Fifth, when cultural traditions take hold and then get mixed up with commercial pursuits and nostalgic sentimentality, it's far too easy for them to morph into something that only vaguely resembles the original idea, so that we end up calling something an important long-standing tradition without questioning it. To me, Santa fits that bill.
I have a few more beefs with the big guy, but I'll leave it at that for now. I know, I know. It's a harmless tradition and I'm a big old Scrooge. And I think it's important to let kids have their fantasies. But our kids have very rich fantasy lives (almost too much so, sometimes) without Santa. I grew up without believing in Santa, but still enjoyed the holiday season. So I don't think our kids are missing much. And we teach them not to ruin it for kids who do believe in Santa. So I'm not a complete monster.
Actually, though, I love Santa movies. I must have watched Miracle on 34th Street a dozen times as a kid. And I really like the Tim Allen Santa Clause movies. It's just since I became an overly analytical parent that the jolly old fella has gotten under my skin.
Do you mind if people wish you a Merry Christmas?
Not in the least. I personally love all of the good wishes of the season, and I don't really understand people being offended by it. What I would really love to see, though, is people wishing others a merry/happy whatever their holiday is. Wish your Christian friends a Merry Christmas, your Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah, your African-American friends who celebrate it a Happy Kwanzaa. And there's nothing wrong with a blanket Happy Holidays. It's all said in good will, and I think we should take it as such.
So now that you've explained how Bahá’ís kinda/sorta/maybe/sometimes/don't really celebrate Christmas, as well as completely vilified the beloved institution of Santa Claus, what does your family do for Christmas?
We enjoy the festivity and warmth of the holiday season, and ooh and ahh over all the pretty light displays and our friends' Christmas trees. Havarti's a big LEGO fanatic, and we have a LEGO winter village that we put up on the mantle. I've also always loved nutcrackers, so we have a small collection of nutcrackers we put out during the winter months. I also like to decorate with snowmen, which I think helps the kids not feel like such oddballs not having some sort of holiday decorations during December. We teach the kids the stories of Hanukkah and the Nativity and Kwanzaa, partake in any festivities we are invited to (this year we're having Christmas dinner with some friends), and talk about the importance of honoring everyone's celebrations.
Oh, and we make rockin' awesome gingerbread houses with the kids' cousins. Super fun.
I hope that clears things up a little. Wrapping this up, I feel an overwhelming urge to write Santa an apology letter. Goofy brain.
May you all have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Joyous Kwanzaa, and a warm and festive holiday season, whatever you celebrate. Peace and love to all!