Christmas in multi-cultural 21st century

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Bahá’í followers Bahá’í followers

For many Christmas is about Santa Claus, a richly decorated Christmas tree, smartly wrapped presents and an advent calendar.

These symbols, typical of the commercialised, Western interpretations of the ‘religious’ holiday period, are happily embraced by many without a second thought.

But in multicultural 21st century Britain, these symbols have limited meaning for many.

According to census data, less than half of Waltham Forest’s residents identify themselves as Christian, while 26 per cent follow religions which do not celebrate Christmas.

One estimate puts Waltham Forest’s Muslim population as the fifth largest in England and the third largest in London.

So what does Christmas mean to those belonging to faiths that don’t celebrate it?

Jasmine Danish is the secretary of Waltham Forest’s Bahá’í spiritual assembly.

Followers adhere to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, a 19th century man who claimed to be the messenger of God, and preached that all the world’s religions share a ‘spiritual source’. 

The 62-year-old says Christmas is only appreciated in a religious context.

“We do exchange gifts if we choose and celebrate as you would any other celebration, but we don’t have those sorts of symbols and we don’t drink alcohol,” she said.

“Christmas is only appreciated because Christ was a revelation and part of humankind’s progress.”

Siva Rajeev, secretary for 10 years at the Sri Katpaga Vinayagar Temple in Bedford Road, Walthamstow, said the Hindu faith doesn’t recognise the western symbols of Christmas.

Hindu is a religion well known for its elaborate and colourful iconography, but Mr Rajeev said it usually has a strong link to the faith, as opposed to Christmas which, to many, holds only a tenuous link to faith and is rather treated as a time of celebration.

“In a religious way, no, we do not celebrate Christmas, but culturally we do,” Mr Rajeev said.

“We have gatherings, parties and food but we don’t exactly give gifts in the same way.”

He also said Tamil Hindu temples don’t have specific dates to celebrate annual festivals, leaving it to their convenience.

“Again, religion-wise there are worships and things, everybody goes to temple and prays on the day and, similar to Christmas Day, they have parties and food,” he said.

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