Interfaith Holiday Celebrations

Sugar Festival, St. Nicholas, Noel Baba

While politicians and experts are making urgent calls for a dialogue with Islam, children from Muslim and Christian families are a few steps ahead. They have long been celebrating the holidays together. Babette Braun reports

While politicians and experts are making urgent calls for a dialog with Islam, children from Muslim and Christian families are a few steps ahead. They have long been celebrating the holidays together. Babette Braun reports

Many children are still confused about which religious customs originated where and about where the dividing line is between Muslim and Christian holidays – whether the Sugar Festival, Christmas or St. Nicholas Day. But as a rule they aren't really concerned about where a holiday originated. They simply love each other's holidays, and they don't get bogged down in long dialogs about the cultural background of the various traditions.

What the Sugar Festival and St. Nicholas have in common

Education specialists and social workers who work with children and youths long ago discovered children's interest in interfaith celebrations. Bettina Busse from the Neukölln district Cultural Office in Berlin and Regina Kramer from the Kulturnetzwerk Neukölln (Cultural Network Neukölln) initiated a working group for the project "Celebrating the Holidays."

Last year the group put together an event for St. Nicholas Day and the Sugar Festival on December 6. That year St. Nicholas Day and the Sugar Festival fell on the same date, making it convenient to celebrate both traditions together. The idea worked well given that the Sugar Festival, like St. Nicholas Day, is a gift-giving holiday.

For Muslims the Sugar Festival ends the fasting during Ramadan. It is celebrated for three days, during which Muslims offer each other sweets and small gifts. Thus the event in Neukölln also centered on gift-giving. After the children had successfully participated in an "obstacle course of the senses," they received a reward, Regina Kramer explained. "They could choose either to pick up a gift from a stand associated with the Sugar Festival, or they could be given the gift by St. Nicholas. Many children from Turkish or Arabic families preferred going to St. Nicholas."

According to Regina Kramer, the children apparently prefer being given a gift by a figure such as St. Nicholas rather than just taking a gift.

The interfaith experience of different traditions

Hakan Aslan, a specialist in education and social pedagogy at the youth center DTK-Wasserturm in Berlin, has a very positive view of celebrating Christian holidays together: "We celebrate the rituals of Christian holidays with our children. Islamic holidays unfortunately have very few rituals that can be celebrated with children. Perhaps giving sweets at the Sugar Festival, but what else is there? We don't discuss the religious background of the holidays."

Hakan Aslan thinks that the joy of celebrating together is the first important step in mutual understanding. This is important for children up to age twelve. When they are older, says Hakan Aslan, then teachers can begin explaining the religious meaning of the holidays.

More and more Muslim families in Germany decorate their homes in December with Christmas-like candle wreaths and evergreens. Ten-year old Yanna Ylmas is a Turkish boy growing up in a Muslim family. But when he thinks of Christmas, his eyes light up with anticipation: "My aunt had a Christmas tree last year. But only for New Year's Eve. We don't celebrate Christmas or anything by going to church. This year maybe we are going to get a Christmas tree, too," says Yanna.

The Ylmas family will put up the tree before New Year's Eve because they have extended New Year's to include Christmas Eve. New Year's is still particularly fun for Yanna because "Noel Baba” comes and brings him gifts.

Noel Baba – The Turkish Nicholas

In the Turkish language Noel Baba means "Nicholas." The benevolent St. Nicholas from Myra has always been known to Turks—Myra is located in present-day Turkey. So Yanna doesn't think twice about why Noel Baba brings him gifts. The idea does not occur to him that it could be a problem to light Christmas lights with his classmates or to celebrate the New Year according to the Western calendar. Very devout Muslims don't think much of Noel Baba and trees with lights. Even though Nicholas has long been known in Turkey, he wasn't always a bearer of gifts at New Year's.

But the "great gift-bearing" Noel Baba is nothing new and is well loved not only by Yanna and other Turkish children in Germany, according to the press speaker of the Turkish Embassy in Berlin, Necmettin Altuntas. "For thirty years Noel Baba has been bringing gifts to children in Turkey on New Year's Eve.

Initially there were not many who adopted the tradition, but now it is spreading more, especially in the cities. In the large department stores in the cities and towns, Noel Baba almost always makes an appearance as a bearer of gifts," says Altunas. For him this is a very natural development.

Turkey has very close contact with Germany and other European states. Turkish citizens who migrated to other countries brought back customs with them. This is how trees with lights made their way to Turkey. At first only a few people in Turkey put up trees for the New Year, but then the custom became more and more common as early as December. This trend has also been supported by the Turkish military, which sees itself as the "guardian of modernity."

At military stations it is popular to put up trees with lights in December or at New Year's. Very devout Muslims don't appreciate this either. But Necmettin Altuntas says that the custom has nothing to do with Christian beliefs.

Celebrating holidays to promote a more relaxed and tolerant atmosphere

Children from Muslim and Christian families are far ahead of their parents in the practice of celebrating holidays together. Adults have a harder time indulging in shared experiences out of which a dialog about different experiences of the world and different customs can develop. The way children experience different traditions together may serve as an example for us, although this alone without a dialog would mean missing out on a valuable and inspiring cultural exchange.

But the way in which children celebrate together today serves as an important foundation for more tolerance and a more relaxed atmosphere. Or as Yanna says in relation to Christmas: "Here in Germany they celebrate Christmas. And we are here in Germany, too. We don't really want to conform to the traditions here, but maybe at least just a little bit…"

Babette Braun

© Qantara.de 2003

Translation from German: Christina M. White

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