While lots of holiday parties are mostly about fun, togetherness, and hot cider, they may also include expressions of the host's religion. Below, a few tips for attending parties of faiths different from your own — and for hosting a friendly, meaningful affair.
Get some information.
This tip comes courtesy of Jane Kaplan, author of Interfaith Families: Personal Stories Of Jewish-Christian Intermarriage, who says, "If you are invited to a holiday celebration of another faith for the first time, you may have some anxiety about what the event will be like, how much you'll be expected to participate, and whether you'll be able to comfortably fit in." To alleviate this, she suggests some preparation:
You can do a quick Google search to get a very simple idea of what the holiday is about. What exactly is the celebration for? Second, don't be embarrassed or shy about asking the person who invited you about what to expect. This can help you to be more comfortable and also convey a genuine desire to learn more about both the holiday and the celebration. Feel free to ask about anything that you are unsure about. Maybe you want to find out who else will be there. Will there be people outside the family other than you? What should you wear? What kind of traditions or rituals, (religious and non-religious), will be included? If there are going to be gifts or grab bags, what can you bring? Are there special foods that are connected to this particular holiday? In other words, if you have questions, don't be afraid to ask them.
I also talked to Laurel Synder, author of Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher and editor of Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, who pointed out that because Christianity is the dominant culture in the US, most non-Christians have probably been to a lot of Christmas parties by the time they're adults. So even if you're not Christian, odds are you know the basics of what a Christmas celebration entails. But you can find out ahead of time how religious the party will be. Is it strictly a Rudolph-sweaters-and-mulled-wine-type gathering, or will guests be singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"? Knowing this information in advance will help you feel more comfortable.
Feel free to abstain from certain aspects of the party.
Lots of holiday celebrations blend the secular and the religious, and if a certain segment of the party feels like something you don't want to participate in, it's okay to refrain. Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, told me that if, for instance, you don't want to sing religious Christmas carols at a party, it's perfectly fine not to sing. He added that he's been to a Catholic Mass, but as a Jewish man, didn't take communion, and that many Jews prefer not to kneel during Christian services. Similarly, if you're a guest at someone's party, don't feel like you have to participate beyond the level that's right for you.
Kaplan concurs, saying, "Participate in the aspects of the celebration that feel comfortable to you.
Even if the rituals are not your own, and whether or not you do choose to participate, you can always make it clear by how you act and what you say that you have respect for the traditions and beliefs of others." Snyder argues that if you're of a culturally dominant faith (in the US, that's usually Christianity) and you're attending the celebration of a minority religion, it's extra-important to be respectful. That doesn't mean performing religious practices that make you uncomfortable — it does mean taking your hosts' religion seriously, and giving it the same honor they're often implicitly asked to give yours.
Start a conversation.
Snyder says that if you're invited to a party you think will be quite religious by someone you don't know very well, and you don't feel comfortable attending, the easiest way out is probably just to "make a bullshit excuse." But if close friends or family members invite you to a party where you have reason to believe their expressions of religion will make you feel out of place, that could be "a chance for conversation and dialogue." She explains that if the host is "someone where you can find a way to have a meaningful conversation, you may find that that person wants you there but doesn't understand that there's a line crossed" in terms of the religiosity of the party. If you two can talk honestly with each other, you may find a way to include one another in your holiday plans — and your friend may learn something important about your boundaries and possibly those of others.
If you're the host, know your party.
Snyder explains that "this is a time of year when personal religious experience bumps into our desire for social and cultural experience. We want to share things with our friends but sometimes our friends can't follow us." That is, you may not be able to have the party you want to have and still please everybody. And that's okay. What's important, says Snyder, is to "know your party" — and to let your guests know. If you're having a night of mostly secular latke-frying or cookie decorating, tell them that. And if, on the flipside, you'll be engaging in some serious discussion of the Talmud (which Snyder says sometimes happens over her holiday table) or singing hymns, make your guests aware of that too. Some of your friends who don't share your religion may decide not to come, but you'll be able to share plenty of other experiences with them. Snyder points out that if the way you celebrate the holidays is important to you, you may not want to "let the particularity of the holiday go" in order to be all-inclusive. That's totally fine — as long as you and the people you invite are aware of it from the start.
Include your guests when possible.
Even while having the party you want to have, though, there are ways of drawing in guests who may not be of the same religion. Kaplan advises,
Explain what is going on. Talk about what you are doing and why. If Hebrew songs are sung at a Hanukkah party, translate the songs so people who don't understand Hebrew are less likely to feel left out. In the same way you want your guests to enjoy and respect your traditions, let them know you respect theirs as well. You can ask them about their celebrations and rituals. And you can give them room to participate in your celebration to the degree that they are comfortable. Include them, but do not push them to do more.
Case also mentions a bar and bat mitzvah tradition that could be useful at holiday gatherings: distributing pamphlets explaining the ceremony to folks who may not be familiar with it. You may not want to type up detailed pamphlets for your holiday party, but printing up quick translations or song lyrics could be an easy way to help people get involved. And if you're the type who gets really into stuff like this, handing out a little history of Hanukkah, or Christmas, or Kwanzaa, or St. Lucy's Day or whatever (or leaving a stack of such histories near the drinks table) could be a fun conversation-starter.
Listen to your gut.
Snyder says that if you feel nervous while planning your party or making your guest list, "examine that." Maybe you're not being forthcoming with your guests about what the party will involve, maybe you're not having the party you'd like to have for fear of offending someone, or maybe the way you've always celebrated is incompatible in some way with the people you'd like to celebrate with this time. Your goal is to have a happy and meaningful celebration, and if you're worried that either you or your guests will be uncomfortable, it's best to address that ahead of time. Similarly, if you're a guest and your gut tells you a particular party is going to make you feel like an outsider, take the opportunity to bow out — or to initiate a conversation with the host.
Snyder also points out that "the holiday season is tricky for a lot of people no matter what their religion." She notes that some people may practice their religion in private but be uncomfortable with public displays of religiosity — others may be nervous about the political implications of their holiday celebration. And it's a time of year when emotions run high in general. So if you're anxious about parties this season, you're not alone. But with a little planning and awareness, you can find the balance of fun and faith that works for you.
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