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The Universal Christmas Spirit


Jun 1, 2004
Last Monday I had an eye appointment with Dr. Moors, my eye doctor for a regular check up. As I was getting up of the big chair to leave after getting his report, he shook my hand and wished me Merry Christmas and then abruptly changed his wording to “Happy Holidays” adding “ You don’t celebrate Christmas do you”? “Of course, I do Dr. Moors,” I said. “Sikhs celebrate all good things.” Dr. Moors gave a broad smile showing all his gold fillings and walked away to the next examination room.

On the drive home from my appointment, I started thinking about our conversation, and what Christmas means to me, as an American, as a Sikh, and more importantly, as a human being. There are people who fall on hard times due to a variety of reasons and need a helping hand, and that is what I like about the spirit of Christmas. It is one that has a universal appeal, not just relegated to Christianity or Catholicism. In England, this spirit is extended a day after Christmas, on Boxing Day, when those who are in a position to do so, offer those less fortunate what they can, traditionally in boxes. This can come in the form of food, clothing, or money.

This spirit of generosity towards your fellow human beings is one of the core beliefs in Sikhi and known as Seva, which literally translates to “selfless service.” Bhai Kanhaiya, a disciple of the tenth Sikh Guru, was, in a sense the predecessor of the modern ambulance. He was often seen serving water to wounded soldiers on both sides, and civilians alike during the Battle of Anandpur Sahib in 1704. When other soldiers complained, he was questioned by the tenth Guru himself, who asked whether it was true that he was providing drinking water to the Mughals, the enemy. And Bhai Kanhaiya replied that it was true, but he added, “I saw no Mughal or Sikh on the battlefield. I only saw human beings.” The Guru was pleased with this answer and let him continue in this way.

Charity in Islam comes wrapped in an all encompassing word as well: Zakah. In Judaism, Tzedakah connotes a similar universal sentiment of charity. In Hinduism, the word used is “dana” which calls for people to share kindness with one another. This list could go on and find identical concepts in all of the world’s religions. But my point is that the spirit of Christmas extends well beyond Christians, and includes any of the world’s religions, and indeed even those who don’t believe in God. Like the spirit behind Boxing Day, Seva, Zakah, Tzedakah, and dana all represent human compassion and should be a part of our daily lives, not just a seasonal affair, and can come in many forms: food, clothing, money, or even donating time by volunteering somewhere, or helping an individual or a community. There are no small acts of Seva and every single one of us, regardless of our ties to religion, language, politics, or country, has one thing in common: we are all human beings.

I grew up in Punjab, India where only a generation before me, people of different faiths and beliefs not only lived and celebrated together but fought and died together to free their land from foreign rule. Prior to the partition of India in 1947, there used to be much more intermingling of people from different faiths.

But as luck would have it, I had the opportunity to have lived and earned my livelihood half around the world before retiring from a government job in California. Both my children were born in England and attended schools under Christian as well as Muslim administrations, and have been enriched by those experiences. Apart from our own Sikh celebrations such as Gurpurbs, we celebrated Christmas in England and Tanzania with Christian friends and colleagues, Eid in Nigeria and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Now in California we are part of the multifaith community and take an active part in all its interfaith celebrations as much as we can. We now have two grand-daughters and are introducing this new generation to celebrations of other faiths, starting with the spirit of Christmas, complete with a Christmas tree and eating dinner as a family. And the next day, we will be celebrating a non-U.S. Christmas related holiday – Boxing Day.

I read another fascinating article in The Economist called One Nation, with Aunt Susan. With so much of the news these days highlighting how our political affiliations or religious leanings divide us, it was refreshing to hear about how our religious diversity is a “powerful source of American unity.” The article discusses the latest work of two social scientists, Robert Putnam and David Campbell from Harvard University and the University of Notre Dame, respectively. Their focus is on “the unifying force” of religion. To find out more about Aunt Susan read my post, “Religious Diversity in Multicultural America.”



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