As the semester winds down and the days grow shorter, many students anticipate the approach of the three major December holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. The three holidays, which all land over Winter Break this year, extol the values of peace and joy, but in a modern, secular society, holidays which have their origins in religion (namely Christmas and Hanukkah) have the potential to incite controversy. Many a Supreme Court case has dealt with religious symbols such as a Nativity scene or a Menorah being placed in public spaces, which are supposed to uphold the separation of church and state. Swarthmore is a secular campus which prides itself on welcoming students of all faiths. Therefore, when the holidays come, students, organizations and the administration must find a delicate balance between the religious and the secular in order to make everyone feel comfortable.
The ways in which students celebrate their respective December holidays are many. The student religious groups on campus host annual events in honor of Christmas and Hanukkah. Hillel, Swarthmore’s main Jewish student organization, plans to host a “Hanukkah-themed study break with latkes” sometime during the reading week, according to Hillel leader Rebekah Judson ’12. Judson maintained that this and any other Hanukkah events that Hillel may host are more secular in tone. “Hanukkah is a holiday that many relate to simply from a cultural perspective, regardless of their religious observance, so our event focuses more on the shared cultural traditions of the holiday,” she said.
Swarthmore Progressive Christians (SPC) and Swarthmore Christian Fellowship (SCF) will jointly sponsor an “Advent Lessons and Carol Service” on December 4. SCF leader Andrew Cheng ’12 stresses that this annual event is open to the entire campus, but past years have largely seen onlySPC and SCF members attend. In addition, the Student Protestant Advisor, Joyce Tompkins, hosts a Christmas party for members of the two organizations at her house.
“Since these events are sponsored by the student religious groups, they are religious in content,” said Tompkins, therefore, none of the events receive sponsorship from the College. Because of this, Tompkins notes, there has never been a controversy arising from administration support for religious activities, thus maintaining secularity. “Having been founded by Hicksite Quakers, who did not observe religious holidays,” noted Tompkins, “the institution does not have any specifically Christian traditions around the holidays.”
Getting into the spirit
December is also a time that many choose to put up decorations to commemorate a certain holiday. Perhaps the most visible decoration at Swarthmore is the two-story Christmas tree in the condiments bar area of Sharples. According to Linda McDougall, the head of Dining Services, as well as Joyce Tompkins, the tree has been up in Sharples during every holiday season for the last twenty years. “The tree is decorated with golden bows and white lights, not with any religious symbols,” said Tompkins. She notes that if explicitly religious symbols such as Nativity scenes were put up in public spaces, “that would be a problem.”
Some argue that the tree itself is a religious symbol. However, Cheng counters that the Christmas tree is part of the secular aspect of Christmas, which he believes is divorced from the holiday’s religious aspect. “[The Christmas tree] started off as a Pagan symbol, became a Christian symbol, and now [is] just a commercial symbol,” said Cheng. “The religious and commercial aspects of Christmas are getting more and more separated every year.”
Eleanor Glewwe ’12, one of the leaders of SPC, agrees. “In American public schools there’s a strong secularist bend because they don’t want to offend anyone. They don’t want to decorate for holidays, which I think is appropriate. But at Swarthmore … no one seems to mind [the tree in Sharples],” said Glewwe. She attributes this to the fact that Swarthmore is a private college, as well as an institution of higher education.
In addition to the Christmas tree in Sharples, some individual dorms have decided to put up decorations of their own. Residents of the basement and second floor of Willets have turned decorating the halls into a competition. In the Willets Basement common space, residents have set up a Christmas tree and a light-up snowman, hung hundreds of lights and paper snowflakes from the ceilings and set personalized stockings on residents’ doors. Willets Basement resident Mickey Herbert ’15 contends that the primary impetus for decorating was to outperform Willets Second. “We are by far the most festive hall on campus,” he said, adding that the decision to put up decorations came from the entire hall.
Treasure Tinsley ’15, another resident of Willets Basement, agrees that the motivations for putting up decorations had nothing to do with religion. “[The decorations] are definitely secular. There are no religious symbols. The whole point is to include everyone in the hall, and we don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” she said. According to Tinsley, the act of putting up decorations was more a hall bonding activity than anything. “Christmas isn’t about religion for me; it’s just about getting together with your friends and family and having a good time.”
Herbert, who identifies as Roman Catholic, mentioned that he was likely to buy a portrait of Jesus to put on the tree, and had considered also putting up a Nativity scene. His hall-mates countered that the inclusion of such an explicitly Christian symbol warranted also buying a menorah, a distinctly Jewish symbol, to make everyone feel welcome. “We’re trying to be religiously diverse,” said Tinsley.
Noah Weinthal ’15, a member of Hillel, argues that holiday decorations in Willets and elsewhere cannot be divorced from religion. “Just because [there is no] cross or Jesus doesn’t make [decorations] secular,” he said, adding that putting up any kind of religiously associated decoration in a public space runs the risk of making someone uncomfortable.
Since Kwanzaa’s roots lie not in religion but in cultural tradition, Kwanzaa is something of an anomaly in the world of December holidays. Should Kwanzaa, therefore, take the same status as other holidays in that events commemorating it should not receive funding from the administration? Cheng says yes. “It’s not a religious holiday, but it is a cultural holiday, so it just gets [the same amount of] support from the administration as Christmas or Hanukkah,” he said.
On Friday at 4:30, the Black Cultural Center (BCC) and Swarthmore African-American Student Society (SASS) will host an event, which is open to the entire campus, in honor of Kwanzaa featuring traditional music of the African Diaspora and reflections on the meaning of Kwanzaa. Unlike Christmas and Hanukkah events, the Kwanzaa event is sponsored by theBCC; thus it is indirectly sponsored by the administration.
Paul Cato ’14, president of SASS, believes that Kwanzaa is fundamentally different from other celebrations. “I don’t think you can compare [Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa],” he said. Cato, who celebrates both Kwanzaa and Christmas, explains that the two fall so close together (Christmas is on December 25; Kwanzaa lasts from December 26 until January 1) because “it was one of the few times of the year that slaves had time to themselves.”
For Cato, Kwanzaa is “a way for us to recognize these black culture values and to remind ourselves that we are part of the diaspora and connected to other blacks throughout the world.” Unlike Christmas, he notes, there is no commercial aspect to Kwanzaa. “Kwanzaa’s not a holiday,” he said. “It’s a community celebration.”
“A festival of lights”
Despite the doldrums of exam season, Swarthmore is a community bursting with energy for the holidays, be it in hosting events or putting up decorations. Judson said, “Students should just exercise basic levels of respect, listening to others’ responses to their decorations to ensure that they’re not making anyone uncomfortable.”
Tompkins expresses her desire for students of different faiths to be able to celebrate the December holidays together. “I have often thought it would be nice for Swarthmore to have some kind of interfaith winter holiday event — a festival of lights or something like that. Many religions have a festival at this time of year, when the days grow short and cold. There are ways this could be done that highlights no particular faith, but celebrates light, warmth, and the human spirit,” she said. “Who knows, maybe someday.”