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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 17, 2001

Selective celebrations

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Religion and Ethics Writer

It can be rather cloddish to send a Christmas card to a Jewish friend, whose last Hanukkah candle will be lit tonight.

Diana Paw U and Richard Paw U, both Burmese Buddhists, wrap holiday gifts for their grandchildren. The couple plan a large Christmas gathering with relatives.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

If you're going to give a Muslim a gift in the middle of December, best to make it for the end of Ramadan. Little ones in the Jewish faith get Hanukkah presents, and there are many non-Christian holidays more related to culture than religion (Kwanzaa, an African cultural celebration, is one example).

But as the day approaches when many celebrate Christ's birth, it's worthwhile to know that even some Christians don't "do" Christmas, while some non-Christians do Christmas in a big way.

For example, Rev. Richard Paw U, a Burmese Buddhist, gives out gifts and plans a big Christmas gathering with relatives. But you won't find any nativity sets under his tree.

Fellow Buddhist Ruth Tabrah also bestows plenty of Christmas presents, but the cards she sends to friends bear greetings like "Best wishes for a happy season," because her big holiday celebration takes place a week later, on New Year's Day.

Quaker Shirley Bechill, on the other hand, gives presents, but favors religious practice. Be-chill, a regular at the Friends' meetings in Honolulu, gives cards that reflect her spirituality, often bearing scripture readings. Even her stamps eschew secular images.

From what she can tell, some Quakers go in for all the secular festivities, but others don't, choosing to take a strict view of the holiday.

"We do it from a spiritual base," Bechill said, adding that her religion preaches any one day is no more important than any other day.

Like the Quakers, people in other denominations often view Christmas strictly in the religious realm.

The Seventh-day Adventists, Nazarenes, fit this category. But even the strictest of these typically leave the practice of gift giving and cards up to the individual congregants.

Tamara Albertini, a University of Hawai'i-Manoa philosophy professor, noted that the tradition of giving gifts is a Roman one. And the precursor to Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, has interesting roots, she added.

The tale starts with a father too poor to take care of himself and his family, who was going to send his daughters out to become prostitutes, Albertini said.

Thank your holly that St. Nicholas, bishop of Smirna, gave each girl an apple made of gold, saving them from such a fate.

St. Nicholas Day was celebrated in Switzerland and other parts of northern Europe Dec. 6, with oranges, which could look like a golden apple in the right light.

This melding of traditions that make up our celebrations include the conflated tale of Grandfather Frost, the winter solstice pagan rituals and the German tradition of winter trees. All were things that had nothing to do with Christianity, Albertini said.

"The church in the beginning tried to stop local traditions," she said, adding that eventually leaders adopted them. "If you can't beat 'em ..."

But even in the ecumenical arena, some don't celebrate Christmas traditions at all, said UH religion professor Helen Baroni.

Take Jehovah's Witnesses.

"These people don't do birthdays. They're not going to do Jesus' birthday."

Most Protestants didn't celebrate Christmas as a major holiday until 150 years ago, Baroni said: "It was regarded as too 'papish.' "

Translation: too linked to the Roman Catholic church.

"During early America, they didn't celebrate Christmas the way they do now at all," she said.

And a footnote: Thanksgiving beats out Christmas as America's most universally celebrated holiday, according to a 2000 survey by Ohio University and Scripps Howard News Service.