Life

Alternative Christmas

As Christians prepare to celebrate one of their most important religious dates, Chrissie Russell and Jane Hardy speak to people with a different take on December 25

Buddhist

Gen Drolkar (57) is a Buddhist nun and teacher attached to the Potala Buddhist Centre at Donegall Pass, Belfast

As Buddhists, we try to fit in and do whatever everybody else wants to do. There are no particular routines at Christmas, but some people like to go on retreat, and sometimes Buddhist centres put on a special meditation session.

A few years ago, I went to a Buddhist retreat over Christmas, held in York. On the day itself, we had a big party and they put on a play about the life of Buddha, but that was a bit unusual.

In terms of food, we had a vegetarian meal with a large nut roast, and there was present-giving. We gave each other books, cards and things you could buy at the Dharma shop.

People often say the real spirit of Christmas has been lost and we try to reinstate it; part of my job is doing workshops on giving and generosity, which is relevant at this time of year.

All Buddha means is 'enlightened being', which could be Jesus or you or anyone else. We're pretty tolerant and say that if the Christian teaching works for you, good.

We'd probably recommend giving Christmas presents unconditionally, without attachment and without working out what you're going to get in return. All we wish is for people to practise some form of spirituality and to enjoy Christmas.

Humanist



Humanists Les and Heather Reed, from Belfast, are members of the Belfast Humanist Group



I don't think it's just humanists, I think most people now do Christmas without the religion. As humanists, we prefer to celebrate Darwin Day on Charles Darwin's birthday, February 12. That's when the Belfast Humanist Society sets out a stall in town with leaflets on evolution, and we conduct opinion polls to survey people's views on the subject. We normally get a surprisingly positive reaction.

At Christmas, I send charity Christmas cards, without a religious message, as a way of keeping in touch with people. I do it because it's a tradition, but there's no reference to it in the Bible and the religious component is tiny.

I won't be going to a carol service, although I like some of the tunes and don't denounce anybody who enjoys carols.

On the 25th, I will be sitting down to a turkey dinner, but regard it as a mid-winter feast. The whole Christmas thing goes back way beyond Christianity, which as the dominant culture appropriated the pagan festival and Roman saturnalia.

That's ok, I'm quite happy that Christians should enjoy the holiday as much as I do.

My two children, who are now grown up and humanists like me, went to ordinary schools and encountered a lot of religious thinking. I encouraged them to treat these ancient traditions as just traditions rather than something that required unthinking reverence.

We did give the children Christmas presents when they were young and told them the Santa Claus story. In fact, with his beard and ubiquity, he's a bit of a god-figure, yet nobody believes in Santa when they grow up. From a humanist standpoint, Christmas is just a secular holiday.







Pagan



Esther (she wants to keep her identity secret) is regional co-ordinator of the Pagan Federation in Northern Ireland



We don't celebrate Christmas ... it's nothing to do with me (she laughs). People often make the mistake that a non-Christian celebration means a non-spiritual celebration, but all the nature festivals have a deep spiritual basis.

We like to mark the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which occurs today. That's when you'd bring a yule log and evergreen tree into the house, to encourage spring to come.

I don't want to criticise Christianity - one of the special things about paganism is it's not a proselytising belief. In fact, it's a far older religion, and many of the Christmas customs are borrowed from us.

We give presents, sure, and people send each other Yule cards. Hanging mistletoe in the house is important to druids, but I'm not a druid.

On the 25th itself, we'll have what my kids, who are young men now, like to eat - and that'll probably be turkey with all the trimmings. We believe in buying what's in season, so I won't have strawberries from America or wherever for pudding.

We dress the table with candles, even for breakfast. But, for me, the ceremony at the solstice is the most important thing.

I've planned a visit to Newgrange in the Boyne valley for after Christmas. The site dates from 3200BC and is far older than Stonehenge.

I was brought up in a strongly Protestant family and, as a woman, I felt God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost left out half the human race. Now, I'm much happier with a religion that worships the goddess and the god.

My introduction to paganism came via a book I was given 20 years ago on anthropology and witchcraft in Africa.

I thought the author hadn't a clue and went on to read about the 'burning times', the persecution of witches in different cultures, and that set me off on a quest.

I met people who were witches, but not the kind that are into Titania's love potions. You have to be careful, there is dangerous stuff out there too - I could make you a love spell today and you could meet a man who might turn out to be violent or alcoholic.

The most important pagan tenet is to harm no one.

We don't watch carol services or anything like that on television, but there's one pagan movie I am hoping to catch on TV, the Wizard of Oz.

It opens with a line from the good witch to Dorothy: "What sort of witch are you, a good or a bad witch?" then goes on "We can all decide which sort of witch we want to be ... " It's the first time the old gods are mentioned in a Hollywood movie.





Jehovah's Witness



Jehovah's Witness Trish Keery (42), a full time carer, lives in Belfast with her three children Christina (16), Gary (20) and Alan (23), who is not a Jehovah's Witness)



Sometimes we go and stay with friends in Donegal or with my mum in England, as it is the one time of the year that everyone is off work and school.

But we absolutely do not celebrate Christmas day at all. It's just a normal day for us when we can sit and enjoy some chill-out time.

As Jehovah's Witnesses, we don't celebrate Christmas day because of its origins. There's no mention of the date in the Bible and the only two birthdays celebrated in the Bible are not part of worship.

We believe that it is the death of Jesus that is meant to be remembered, but we don't 'celebrate' Easter either. We don't give each other chocolate eggs, but we would get together for a remembrance service.

I don't feel left out at all at Christmas. Before I became a Witness 15 years ago I used to be really into Christmas and make my own decorations, but I don't miss it.

At my daughter's school everyone knows she is a Jehovah's Witness. Initially, she had some people who would have given her cards at Christmas and she would explain to them that she didn't want to hurt their feelings, but that she didn't celebrate Christmas.

It's never been a problem for any of my children that we don't celebrate Christmas. At school people are sometimes curious, but they've never been bullied about it or felt left out at all.

They always got toys, though - I would have bought them bikes in summer, because that time of year makes better sense. They thought it was great that they didn't have to wait until Christmas to get presents.

I just hate this time of year because of what it stands for. Everybody goes mad, buying the shops out of everything, there are huge crowds and the same Christmas tunes - I just don't see the point of it.





Muslim

Muslim Sheikh Anwar Mady (33) is an Imam at the Belfast Islamic Centre. He lives in Belfast with his wife Einaf Amin and children Mazen (4), Tareq (2) and six-month-old Yousuf



For Muslims, Christmas Day is not a special day, but we live in a multi-cultural society and so we respect that for many people it is and we congratulate them. We would, of course, accept Christmas gifts or cards out of respect for Christian beliefs. In this country, Christmas is a big part of people's lives.

Our special day is Eid ul-Adha, which will be on December 31 or January 1 this year. It is our celebration to commemorate the actions of the prophet Ibrahim and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

As Muslims, all we ask for is equal treatment in our beliefs. I think all different religions have their own special day and they should all be recognised.

As Muslims, we recognise all prophets of God, and see Jesus as one of the most respected. We believe in his miraculous birth and Mary is given elevated status among women.

But in the Koran, Jesus said there would be another prophet to come after him - Mohammed - so our beliefs about Jesus are not the same as for Christians.

My oldest child goes to a mixed school where he is not the only Muslim. He is not involved in Christmas celebrations, because he knows that we have another story different to the Nativity.





Jew



Jew Leon Litvak (46) is a reader in Victorian Studies at Queen's University, Belfast



Christmas is a completely meaningless day for Jews, so Christmas day is just an ordinary day for me. However, at the moment we have Chanukah going on - it is a major festival for us.

It starts on Friday, December 15, and goes on for eight days. It's based on a historical event, when the temple in Jerusalem was rededicated after being desecrated.

Every night a candle is lit until there are eight candles lit on the candelabra. We sing songs and eat food associated with Chanukah, like donuts and potato pancakes.

We don't give presents, but the children play specific games like spinning a dradle. Depending on what side the top falls on, the kids get nuts and coins.

The giving of coins has really been picked up commercially in America, with gold-wrapped chocolate money being handed out at this time of year.

I'm from Canada originally, and I think much more is made of Chanukah there than here in Northern Ireland. It's also much more common in Canada and North America for someone to wish you 'Happy Holidays' rather than 'Merry Christmas'.

I prefer that, because it shows a recognition that there are different faiths, but I do think political correctness can be taken to extremes.

I think the meaning of Christmas has become very commercial and it's impossible to avoid. Members of the Jewish (and Islamic) faiths are not able to engage in the same outward displays of faith that one can in somewhere like North America, where people are more sensitive to different religions.

I think in Northern Ireland people are just not very aware of different faiths, because they are not part of their lives.

Belfast Telegraph

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