With so many faiths in our country these days, giving presents during the holiday season seems more and more complicated. Can you advise me what to give friends and colleagues who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Rohatsu, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, and Yule? And when they'll "officially" be opening their presents?
As you know, America's religious landscape is more pluralistic than ever. You'll want to mind your "religious P's and Q's," not out of fear that you'll commit a mistake--most people are too gracious to mind a gaffe, especially at the holidays--but because you obviously respect other faiths and those who practice them. You can also learn about your own faith by being exposed to another denomination.
Every major holiday that occurs around this time of year has its own gift-giving idiosyncrasies:
Hanukkah: Celebrated for eight days, beginning this year on the evening of December 16th.
Traditional greeting: "Happy Hanukkah."
Most any gift is acceptable and appropriate: CDs, videos, books, clothing, toys. A Hanukkah-related gift would be especially nice. For kids, this might be a dreidel (a small spinning top that young children play with during the holiday) or a Hanukkah-related storybook.
Also consider giving a dozen doughnuts--especially jelly doughnuts--since an Israeli custom of having them for Hanukkah has caught on in the U.S. in the past decade or so. (The oil in which the doughnuts are prepared represents the scant amount of oil that the ancient Maccabees found in the Temple in Jerusalem and that burned for eight days--far longer than expected.) If your gift is wrapped in the store where you purchased it, make sure it's not wrapped in the Christmas paper so ubiquitous in December.
Christmas: Celebrated on December 25, although some Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7.
Traditional greeting: "Merry Christmas." More religious Christians might say "Have a blessed Christmas" to each other.
Most any gift is acceptable and appropriate: CDs, videos, electronic gadgets, books, clothing, toys. If you're giving a present to a child, though, you may want to check with his or her parents about what to give. Some parents are concerned about the materialism surrounding Christmas and are trying to limit both the number of presents their children receive and the amount spent on them.
Presents are usually opened either Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Some families open a few presents the night of December 24 and open the rest the next morning.
Traditional greeting: There is no greeting specifically for this holiday, although Zen practitioners greet each other with the gassho gesture, placing their palms together in front of their face in an acknowledgement of the other person's Buddha-nature.
Ramadan, Eid ul Fitr, and Eid ul Adha: This year's holiday season finds itself sandwiched by two Islamic holidays: Eid ul Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid ul Adha, which culminates the end of Hajj. Ramadan, a month-long time of dawn-to-dusk fasting, prayer, self-improvement and reflection, began this year in late September. Ramadan culminates in the celebration of Eid ul Fitr, when families and friends gather for feasts and good company.
Eid ul Adha will most likely come on December 31, 2006, depending on the lunar calendar. Eid ul Adha comes at the end of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, which millions of Muslims embark on each year. The holiday is celebrated with Muslims individually sacrificing a goat or lamb--or jointly sacrificing a cow or camel--followed by a gathering of family and friends.
Traditional greetings: During Ramadan Muslims greet each other by saying "Ramadan Mubarak," which means "May God grant you a blessed month," or Ramadan Kareem," which means "Wishing you a generous Ramadan." On Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha Muslims simply say "Eid Mubarak" or "Eid Mabrook," which means "May God make it a blessed feast."
Exchanging gifts is not a hard-and-fast custom for both Eids. Usually adults give toys or money to children, and some adults exchange gifts if they so choose. During Ramadan Muslims often share dates, the primary fast-breaking food, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad. It would not be inappropriate to give dates or other food items to break a fast (make sure that food items do not include pork or non-halal meat).
On both Eids, Muslims tend to dress up, cook special meals, and spend the day meeting friends and family and reflecting on the special time they have just spent.
Kwanzaa: This celebration of traditional African values of family, community, and culture is celebrated from December 26 through January 1. "Kwanzaa," by the way, means "first fruits of the harvest" in the African language of Swahili.
Traditional greeting: "Happy Kwanzaa."
Gifts for children, called zawadi, are very much encouraged. Usually given from parents to their children, these are not overly expensive. Traditional presents are books (emphasizing the value of learning) and "heritage symbols" (such as art objects, bookends, pictures, etc.) that evoke African history and tradition. Gifts are usually given on the last day of Kwanzaa, January 1.
Yule: A celebration of the winter solstice and the renewal of light, Yule occurs on December 21.
Traditional greeting: May vary, but "Happy Yule" is always appropriate.
Gifts are often exchanged after rites and rituals performed on the evening of December 21. Homemade gifts and crafts are appropriate, as are earthenware, incense, candles, or harvest-related gifts.