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For Buddhists, especially those living in the western world, the holidays are a time of year when they’re often asked if they celebrate Christmas. While it might seem like the answer is obvious, in reality the two faiths are more connected than people realize. Their relationship goes back centuries, and the Christmas season has always been quite compatible with Buddhist beliefs. In the United States many practicing Buddhists celebrate Christmas in some form.
Christmas, especially if you grew up in the West, goes beyond its original importance as a religious holiday. People of many different faiths, and even no faith at all, celebrate the holiday. It seems to be everywhere you go from Thanksgiving until New Years. Many of its traditions have become somewhat separate from religion. While churches may be the most popular organizers of charitable movements during Christmas time, the general drive to give back during the month of December is felt by those of every faith. There is a sense of conclusion as the year comes to an end, and people are motivated to give back and start their new year off in a positive way.
While the consumer aspects of Christmas go against Buddhist teaching, the spirit of Christmas is completely compatible. Buddhists easily take part in it, focusing on helping the needy and giving back to others. The Christmas season presents an opportunity to spend time with people of many different faiths, working side by side to do good.
Buddhism is not monotheistic, and as such does not put much emphasis on a single God or creator. Buddha himself is not a god. Christianity believes in one God made up of a holy trinity, and that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. While Buddhists do not believe he is God, they have traditionally held Jesus in high regard. Much of what he taught is very compatible with Buddhist teachings. He is considered a “Bodhisattva” - a Sanskrit word given to those who give up their own comfort in order to help those in need, and live a life of self-sacrifice. The book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” by Thich Nhat Hanh is an excellent book that looks at how Jesus and Buddha might have viewed each other’s spiritual beliefs. For Western Buddhists who grew up in traditionally Christian households it’s an excellent read.
Buddhists also celebrate their own important holiday on December 8th. Bodhi Day celebrates Buddha achieving enlightenment beneath a bodhi (fig) tree. In many Buddhist homes a fig tree is decorated in lights to commemorate this event. Fig trees are not always easy to get ahold of in places like the U.S., and some Buddhists use fur trees instead. For the entire month of December special meals are shared with families and cookies baked in the shapes of hearts (the shape of fig leaves) are given out to loved ones and neighbors. Gift giving is a good deed and spreads the positivity of the holiday.
In Thailand, where 90% of the population is Buddhist, it might seem surprising to see Christmas decorations and hear Christmas songs playing in places like shopping centers. In reality, this open acceptance of a Christian celebration makes total sense within the Buddhist faith. Tolerance is a foundation of Buddhist beliefs. Understanding that people have different views, and accepting that completely, is necessary for any practicing Buddhist.
Additionally, the Thai people know how to celebrate! Any opportunity to take part in festivities is welcomed. They might not believe in Christmas as a religious day, but they can always have a good time. Some of this comes from the Thai concept of “sanuk,” basically meaning enjoyment, that defines Thai culture.
Buddhists strive to achieve Enlightenment and end the cycle of rebirth. Christians work to follow Christ’s teachings and the rules of the Bible in order to reach heaven. Buddhism is about inner reflection, while Christianity is about a God outside of oneself. However, both faiths advocate for very similar paths to achieve these goals: humility, charity, kindness, and selflessness. There are major differences, but they share the most basic principles. In the end, doing good brings happiness and positivity to people of all beliefs. Christmas is a wonderful time to be reminded of this. The diversity of its celebration makes it truly special!
Do you have a special way you celebrate Christmas? Do you incorporate other faiths or ideas? What does the spirit of Christmas mean to you?
All of us here at Hippie Pants hope that you have a wonderful, blessed holiday season! We hope that the goodness of the Christmas spirit inspires you this year to live life compassionately, not just in December but every day!