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:
As to the position of Christianity, let it be stated without any hesitation or equivocation that its divine origin is unconditionally acknowledged, that the Sonship and Divinity of Jesus Christ are fearlessly asserted, that the divine inspiration of the Gospel is fully recognized, that the reality of the mystery of the Immaculacy of the Virgin Mary is confessed, and the primacy of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, is upheld and defended.
The Founder of the Christian Faith is designated by Bahá’u’lláh as the “Spirit of God,” is proclaimed as the One Who “appeared out of the breath of the Holy Ghost,” and is even extolled as the “Essence of the Spirit.” His mother is described as “that veiled and immortal, that most beauteous, countenance,” and the station of her Son eulogized as a “station which hath been exalted above the imaginings of all that dwell on earth,” whilst Peter is recognized as one whom God has caused “the mysteries of wisdom and of utterance to flow out of his mouth.”
“Know thou,” Bahá’u’lláh has moreover testified, “that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath to God, the whole creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things. Its evidences, as witnessed in all the peoples of the earth, are now manifest before thee. The deepest wisdom which the sages have uttered, the profoundest learning which any mind hath unfolded, the arts which the ablest hands have produced, the influence exerted by the most potent of rulers, are but manifestations of the quickening power released by His transcendent, His all-pervasive and resplendent Spirit. We testify that when He came into the world, He shed the splendor of His glory upon all created things. Through Him the leper recovered from the leprosy of perversity and ignorance. Through Him the unchaste and wayward were healed. Through His power, born of Almighty God, the eyes of the blind were opened and the soul of the sinner sanctified…. He it is Who purified the world. Blessed is the man who, with a face beaming with light, hath turned towards Him.” — Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 109
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, just not in relation to each other. Many of us do joyfully celebrate Christmas with our families and friends who celebrate it. 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. Sorting out the cultural practices of the holiday season from the religious ones is enough to make your head spin.
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, the whole Santa thing kind of irks me. (This is not official Bahá’í teaching, here, just so we’re clear.) Part of it is because strangers constantly ask my kids what Santa brought them for Christmas. We don’t actually do Santa, so that gets awkward.
The other part is just my own personal analysis. 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, 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. Third, routinely asking children what they want for Christmas seems like it perpetuates the materialism and consumerism everyone complains about during the holidays. I think it would be cool if Santa asked what kids would like to give instead. 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.
I know, I know, it’s a harmless tradition and I’m a big old Scrooge. I do 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. The history of Santa Claus is actually really interesting, and we use the ubiquitousness of Santa as an educational opportunity. We also teach them not to ruin it for kids who do believe in Santa Claus. So I’m not a complete monster. 🙂
Actually, and perhaps ironically, I love Santa movies. I must have watched Miracle on 34th Street a dozen times as a kid. And we 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 any of 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. As I said, we enjoy Santa movies because sometimes things we do don’t make perfect sense on paper. 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, and talk about the importance of honoring everyone’s celebrations.
Oh, and we make over-the-top gingerbread houses with friends and family. Super fun.
I hope that clears things up a little. Wrapping this up, I feel an overwhelming urge to write Santa an apology letter. Poor fella.
May you all have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Joyous Kwanzaa, and a warm and festive holiday season, whatever you celebrate.