How Many Religious Holidays Are Enough?

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Sebastien Desarmaux / Godong / Corbis

All nations made up of a diversity of religions face the same dilemma: Do they officially ignore those traditions that differentiate people in favor of accentuating only shared secular traditions, or do they embrace and celebrate the diversity in their midst? One answer may be found in the news that a school district in the Chicago suburbs is contemplating changing the name of Halloween to "Fall Festival" and Christmas to "Winter Festival," to avoid alienating non-Christian students. The area's school board appears to have floated the idea after a Muslim parent had asked that decorations celebrating the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan be put up inside a local school. Education officials refused, arguing that public schools have to remain neutral in respect to religion — doing away with Halloween and Christmas seems to have been a logical extension, as if by simply renaming holidays that Westerners have observed for centuries, they can be stripped of religious significance.

In response, outraged local parents packed an emergency meeting this week to complain that the school board had lost the plot. "They're trying to take away holidays and stuff for the kids," said resident Gene Boerema, who, according to a report by the local CBS affiliate, had come dressed in a Santa Claus suit. The Oak Lawn area of Chicago is about 30 percent Arab-American, most of whom are practicing Muslims. Many non-Muslim parents at the meeting suggested that the problem was Muslims trying to change American traditions. But that was never the idea according to Elizabeth Zahdan, a Muslim mother of three, who had asked that her children be separated from others at lunch during the Ramadan fast. "We should educate our children about all the holidays, equally," she said. "And not to favor one holiday over another."

That's the way India deals with its religious plurality — not by denying it, but by officially embracing what can sometimes seem like every religious holiday known to humanity. Almost every other week, some national or state holiday shuts down at least part of the country: There are the big Hindu holy days (Diwali, Dussehra) and those in Islam's calendar (Eid-ul-Fitr, Muharram); you get a day off for Buddha's birthday and also for the biggest Christian holy days. If you're Sikh or Jain or Parsi, there's a holiday for you. And if the holy day you want to mark isn't on the main list, there's also a secondary list of so-called "restricted holidays" from which each person can choose a limited number every year. Throw in secular days like this week's national holiday marking the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, and India has some 17 official holidays a year plus dozens of others that people can choose to observe. (The U.S. has 10.) The World Economic Forum says that India, an emerging economic powerhouse, actually has one of the world's shortest average working years.

Having all those holidays doesn't guarantee religious harmony, of course — tensions persist between India's various communities, and sometimes these flare into violence — and they do take a toll on the economy. The All India Association of Industries says the glut of non-working days costs India hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Still, official recognition that there are many faiths with their own traditions and days to celebrate, also brings a basic acceptance of the principle of diversity that other places — a Chicago school district that strips religious holidays from its calendar, or a French school system that bans Muslim head scarves — will never achieve. As confusing and economically inefficient as India's rainbow of religious holidays can be, it also seems more honest and inclusive. In school, my three-year-old daughter has already learned about the Hindu deities Lord Krishna and Lord Ram. She is about to start work on an Eid art project, and will no doubt celebrate Christmas with her school mates in the way of children everywhere: by asking for the latest toy. She doesn't understand the nuances and differences, yet, but she does know that different people have different beliefs and that those beliefs all deserve respect. That's got to be healthier than papering over those differences by renaming religious festivals with meaningless malarkey.