REFLECTIONS ON THE ROAD TO RESPECT
available as a PODCAST
The Best of Erica #4
One of the most gratifying things for me, and the main reason I continue to write these monthly articles, is that I always receive comments from you, my readers and listeners. A Christmukah Story, first posted in December 2007, generated a flood of feedback. We reposted it in 2009 and 2012 and again got loads of comments. The article has also been picked up and reprinted in numerous online publications. It remains my most popular post to date.
As you many of you are new subscribers to Reflections on the Road to Respect, I have decided to share this article again this year.
I am so grateful to each and every one of you that has chosen to become a member of the Road to Respect community. It has been my joy to get to know you, to work with you, and to serve you. You inspire me to continue working to ignite the respect conversation.
Wishing you and those you cherish, respect, love, good health and
peace for the holiday season and the New Year.
A Christmukah Story
I didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas. It was “their” holiday. It wasn’t until I met my late husband that I experienced the “magic” of Christmas; the amazing smell of a living tree, the fun of decorating, the comfort of lights on dark winter evenings, the eggnog, the gingerbread and of course, the chocolate. I was hooked!
On December 6, 2001 my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had his first chemotherapy treatment a few days later and spent his last Christmas in a hospital bed. As was his habit, he had already bought the tree, and most of the presents. He made me promise to have Christmas as usual for our five year old daughter. I will never forget being in our basement on Christmas Eve, after having put out the milk and cookies for Santa, crying and wrapping, lamenting, “I can’t do this! What do I know about this? I’m Jewish.”
Although my husband has been dead for almost 13 years, we still celebrate Christmas, along with all of the Jewish holidays. I make dinner on Christmas Eve, and have the same family friends over every year. A number of years ago, when I called my friend to ask what her daughter wanted for Christmas, she said, “you will never believe what she put on her Christmas list this year – a dreidel and gold coins.”
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah occurs each year some time in December. Playing dreidel is a traditional Hanukah game. A dreidel is a spinning top and depending on where it lands you either get a pile of gold chocolate coins (or money) or you have to put some of your own stash into the pot. My friend’s daughter had so much fun playing dreidel at our house the year before she asked for one so she could play at home.
I decided that not only would the kids play dreidel, but we would incorporate some Hanukah foods into our traditional Christmas dinner. Instead of mashed potatoes, I served latkes. Latkes are potato pancakes, aka round hash browns. And for dessert, along with the Christmas goodies, we served sufganyot – an Israeli jelly doughnut, another Hanukah treat.
My father-in-law, who is German, commented that the latkes seemed like kartoffelpuffer and the doughnuts like Berliner phantkuchen, both of which he had eaten as a boy in Germany. Another friend contributed a French baguette. I ate the entire meal with chopsticks, which has been my habit since I first tried them at the age of seven.
I have to say that one of the things I like most about celebrating Christmas is that it allows me to feel included. It is no longer “their” holiday. Now it is my holiday too. I can participate in the fun and the excitement of the season. I can talk to strangers on the street about getting the tree up, the shopping, and the wrapping. It has created a larger community for me.
I share a story in Road to Respect about an experience I had number of years ago when delivering Respectful Workplace training to a group of municipal employees. I was talking about how human rights is about the recognition of differences and the balancing of rights. One participant commented that, in her opinion, the balance was getting skewed in the “wrong” direction. Now, this is a comment I hear quite often. I asked her if she could share an example of what she meant. She said that she was really upset because the municipality had decided that employees could no longer say Merry Christmas, as that might offend some of their clients. Of course, she wanted to know “if they could do that.” In the discussion that followed, it became obvious that this was an issue that had touched a nerve for a lot of people, regardless of ethnicity.
This is an example of what can go wrong in the well intentioned interest of recognizing difference and wanting to be respectful of that difference. It is true that not everyone in our multi-cultural country celebrates Christmas - and it is important to acknowledge that. However, in the workplace, this acknowledgment must be part of a broader, clearly communicated strategy to promote a respectful, inclusive culture. In a Canadian workplace, this culture clearly includes a celebration of Christmas. If that is not recognized, an employer risks promoting divisiveness and alienation rather than inclusion and acceptance.
In this situation, I heard anger expressed. Anger at their employer, and, unfortunately, anger at the “clients” that were the reason for the employer’s decision. The employer’s intentions had backfired.
Why were these employees angry? Anger is a secondary emotion, often masking anxiety, frustration or fear. And fear is front and center when we talk about issues like discrimination and harassment. “I had not been raised by Mother to be prejudiced,” writes American Suzie Humphreys, “So how did I become one of the Americans gasping about racial blending? Fear, of course. Isn’t that what’s at the root of all hatred? Fear that someone else will take what’s mine, or get my place in line, or take away my values and force theirs upon me or you.” 1
Certainly the goal of the employer that imposed the “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” rule was to show awareness and respect to those Canadians who don’t celebrate Christmas. This intention should be recognized and applauded. However, in adopting a policy which said staff could no longer wish their clients “Merry Christmas,” this employer inadvertently pushed the fear button. This type of approach does not encourage an accepting and welcoming attitude. Instead, it risks planting the seeds of fear which may sprout as prejudice. It encourages an “us versus them” attitude, where “they” are seen as the group that is threatening to change our lives, our culture and our traditions.
The Canadian constitution embodies the values of tolerance, fairness, justice and mutual respect. Our goal is to use these values to guide us in creating an inclusive society that recognizes difference and seeks to accommodate those differences. So what does accommodation of difference look like when it comes to holiday celebrations?
In the December/January “holiday season” some employees may celebrate Christmas. Some employees may celebrate Hanukah. Some may celebrate Bodhi Day, Eid-Ul-Adha, Oshogatsu, or the Birthday of Guru Gobind Singh. In a multi-cultural environment, it is respectful and appropriate to demonstrate awareness of all of these different holidays and to acknowledge them. An employer can easily find out about these holidays through a multi-faith calendar, which is available on-line.
I was speaking with a client who told me that she was involved in a workplace committee whose task was to find a number of different holidays that were reflective of the employee population. The committee then organizes events to recognize these different holidays and promote awareness about their associated rituals traditions, and foods.
Another client shared with me how her organization had celebrated Halloween by bringing in pumpkins for employees to carve. She said that for some of the employees from different cultures, this was their first time carving a pumpkin. And they loved it!
These types of activities help to build trust and familiarity between employees. They help to calm the fears of those that are worried about “us” versus “them.” If employers want to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that diversity provides, they must build a larger, more inclusive group of “us” in our workplaces. They must build camaraderie amongst a diverse employee group that will offer a broad spectrum of creative ideas and skills to contribute to the business.
I do not believe that the fact that I celebrate Christmas in any way diminishes my identity as a Jew. Rather, it has promoted commonality with others, while encouraging a renewed interest in my own ethnic traditions and culture.
According to Patricia Digh, co-founder of The Circle Project, an American consulting group which focuses on diversity issues, “Teaching students about frog anatomy by exposing them to the dissection of frogs does not make students more frog-like. So getting employees to read and think about perspectives other than their own does not mean that they will reject their own culture. It just means that they will be richer human beings knowing something about the perspectives of others.” 2
In a respectful workplace culture, the goal is to promote respect for, and recognition of, the unique differences that each individual employee brings to the workplace. Adopting a proactive strategy to acknowledge and learn about each other’s traditions and celebrations provides employers with a wonderful opportunity to foster more harmonious, collaborative, and productive work relationships. These types of relationships will translate into bottom line results and give employers the competitive edge that they need in today’s diverse and competitive labour market.
1 Suzie Humphreys, If All Else Fails, Laugh! (Fredericksburg: Tivydale Press, 2005) (Suzie Humphreys is a speaker I had the privilege of hearing recently. If you ever have an opportunity to be in Suzie’s audience, run, don’t walk to get a seat. )
2 Lin Grensing-Pophal, “Opportunities in Diversity Training”, Society for Human Resource Management, SHRM Online, June, 2006
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