The approach of the Hindu festival Holi suggests ways that — in the U.S. as in India — holidays can bring people together across religions and cultures.
Of course, these occasions can also be divisive. In the U.S., some Christians object to what they perceive as reduced attention to Christmas, eroded by more generic “season’s greetings” or “holiday parties” that don’t mention Christmas explicitly but accommodate other celebrations such as Hanukah or Kwanzaa. The First Amendment both forbids the state “establishment” of any single religion and prohibits restrictions on a religion’s “free exercise.” Reconciling freedom of religion and freedom from religion can be challenging.
In this pursuit, an inclusive interpretation of holidays can be fruitful. It can offer opportunities to inform broader populations about specific groups’ traditions, from food and clothing to deeper issues of religious belief.
My wife is a citizen of India. Her family is of Muslim descent. She grew up celebrating Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha — occasions of great hospitality, when families open their homes to neighbors, savoring meals and companionship. Here in the U.S., we have shared Eid dinners with a neighbor who is from Pakistan; she and her family have become our friends through these evenings.
Neighbors on the other side of the street are Indian Americans of Hindu descent (a couple with Telugu and Gujarati roots). They, too, have become family friends. Last year, they hosted a Diwali party that attracted Americans of various religious and ethnic backgrounds, sharing in the celebration of light. With other friends next door, we marked another holiday of lights: Hanukah, during which candles burn for eight nights.
Such gatherings often de-emphasize religion in favor of culture. However superficial the religious dimension, they ease barriers between people and peoples. Food, drink, conversation, children — together they exert a pull that can counter divisions among us.
Sometimes the crossing of boundaries becomes more intimate. My parents’ marriage half a century ago was improbable, joining an American of Jewish descent with a German immigrant with Lutheran Christian roots. A decade ago, my wife and I had our own interfaith, international wedding.
More recently, we attended the wedding of a friend from India who is from a Hindu family. She married an American man of Irish Catholic descent who introduced her to Buddhism. Toasting this happy couple was her gracious ex-boyfriend, a Muslim from Pakistan and a scholar of religion. A Tibetan Buddhist monk officiated.
“Only in America!” is a common reaction to such events. They may still be remarkable, but they are not unheard of. Such developments can dull the sharp edge of intolerance, moving us closer to a world in which respect for particular cultures can coexist with a peaceful acceptance of hybridity.
We should not be naive. A few holidays and cross-cultural marriages will not heal the wounds of economic grievance, linguistic and religious difference, or national resentment. But progress is possible.
Not only national holidays, such as Independence Day, can foster unity. Other occasions can also help.
Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17, the same day Holi begins this year) is a holiday of Irish origin that has become mainstream in the U.S., with people of many backgrounds wearing green and often attending parades rich with civic ritual — especially in urban communities with a history of immigration from Ireland, among many other countries. Patrick himself was a onetime slave, later a Christian missionary to Ireland in the fifth century who became a patron saint of the island. The broad popularity of Saint Patrick’s Day arose in the U.S. in the 20th century, within decades of nativist hostility toward Irish and other immigrants. In historical time, change can happen quickly, if fitfully.
Holi is another festival associated with the emergence of spring. Holi can unite adherents of various faiths to welcome a new season, and to blur typical distinctions of class, caste, and gender. Holi is characterized by playfulness and joy; the abundance of color brightens a narrow, monochrome understanding of society.
Our friends who hosted the Diwali party are planning an equivalent celebration for Holi. Certainly American celebrations of Holi are muted in comparison with those in India. Yet Holi is growing in the U.S. — consistent with the embrace of many religious, national and cultural traditions within this one country.
Josiah H. Brown works in education in New Haven. As a volunteer, he is president of the nonprofit Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, with the website, www.LiteracyEveryday.org.