Blog (25 Dec 2008)

(This is a post recycled from 2008)

Ho! Ho! Ho! I hope everyone out there is having a Merry Christmas or other year-ending holiday of their choice — be it Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Newtonmas, or even Honseki-mas! (More on this last one below.)

Just like to share some thoughts on Christmas as a practitioner of Tenrikyo. I grew up in Honolulu in a household that celebrated Christmas. I remember how my mom (born in a Shinshu family that converted to Tenrikyo in her late teens) would send a boxful of presents to our relatives in San Diego. We also decorated a tree with ornaments every year. It was silvery, small, and fake, but since we lived in a condo, a real tree was kind of out of the question.

I look back fondly on those days now, although there was a time during my angry high-schooler years when I gave Scrooge and the Grinch a run for their money and dismissed Christmas outright just for the reason we weren’t Christians. I don’t think we really celebrated Christmas since then, to the dismay of my Catholic-raised dad.

‘Tis a shame, because if I had known what I know now, there really wouldn’t have been much of an objection on my part about celebrating Christmas in a mostly Tenrikyo household. I add a “mostly” here because, although my dad received the truth of the Sazuke — which would probably be the closest equivalent Tenrikyo has to a conversion ceremony such as a baptism — I still wonder to this day if my dad ever considered himself a Tenrikyo follower (And, sadly, it’s a little too late to ask now.)

Here is my understanding of Christmas — yes, most Christians appear to celebrate December 25 as the birthday of Christ, but I consider it a mostly secular holiday. Christmas trees have a pagan origin. We don’t know the date when Christ was born with absolute certainty — a major reason why the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas. (They may not even celebrate it even if we did know it; they don’t celebrate birthdays either.)

The date December 25 allegedly comes from the fact that Constantine the Great, while wanting to further consolidate his grip over the Roman Empire by making Christianity the state religion, he still secretly wished to worship the sun god, whose birthday was the winter solstice or December 25 according to the ancient Roman calendar. (It was Constantine who also allegedly changed the weekly worship day from Saturday to Sunday.) Even the celebration of Christmas as we know it today is a recent phenomenon — at least if that History Channel show I saw a few years ago was in any way accurate.

Even if my grasp of Christmas facts ultimately proves to be inaccurate, I still don’t see anything wrong about celebrating the birthday of a man (yes, a man from my perspective) who was arguably the most influential human being that ever walked the earth. He was a noble critic of hypocrisy and was fearless in the face of religious and political tyranny. It is no wonder his tale still resonates two thousand years later.

Although there are a number of Tenrikyo ministers who thumb their nose at Christmas (I heard how one went ballistic just because someone from the States wore a Santa cap in Tenri), I honestly don’t see what the big deal is. As I argued above, Christmas is mostly a cultural phenomenon, rather than a religious one. I find it interesting how the Japanese have made Christmas their own (even though it’s not a national holiday). From their Christmas cakes to their “iruminēshon” (“illumination” or Christmas lights) Christmas has become a big deal in mostly secular Japan.

So, what I really want to say is — there’s nothing wrong about celebrating Christmas, even if you’re not necessarily a Christian. It is a time of wonder and hope; a time for the kids especially. I have a dim view of religious traditions that seem to want to sap the fun out of life by frowning on taking part in particular festivities. My mother could have easily said no to Christmas but we celebrated it anyway, and it is something I am very thankful for today.

Lastly, I’d just like to add that if you are Tenrikyo, please feel free to celebrate Christmas or any other holiday, but don’t forget Oyasama’s birthday — celebrated April 18 (a day I like to call “Oyasamas”) — and Iburi Izo’s birthday on 12/28 (or Honseki-mas, a mere three days after Christmas!) Since there is no established convention on how to celebrate these days so far, feel free to create your own special way of celebrating them!