Saturday, December 6, 2008

Merry . . . whatever!

Two snapshots of the syncretic holiday season in Amherst.

When I drove through town earlier this evening, I passed our annual holiday fête on the Common, organized by the Chamber of Commerce and the Town: the "Merry Maple Celebration of Lights" (and this year, multicolored, rather than plain white, to boot).

It epitomizes the easy-to-digest but at times uneasy blending of the sacred and secular that most public institutions affect at this time of year:  No Christmas tree, but Santa on a fire truck.  No Christmas celebration, as such, but lots of carols.  (Incidentally, my UMass history colleague Dan Gordon will be blogging on the theme of religious displays on public property later this month for The Public Humanist.) 

One of the ironies:  As I was stopped at the intersection, the Amherst Regional Middle School Chorus and UMass Minuteman Marching Band were playing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing"--one of the most popular modern Christmas songs, composed by the Lutheran Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. His grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn, the great Enlightenment scholar, who pioneered the modernization of Judaism.  Only two of his six children remained within the Jewish faith; the rest, like many of their German compatriots, followed the path of assimilation and conversion to Christianity.

I was heading through town on my way to the University of Massachusetts to attend the Third Annual Friendship dinner of the Rumi Club, on the theme, "Building Bridges of Dialogue, Bringing Cultures Together."  Following a lavish Turkish meal, several speakers, including local residents and a representative of the Turkish Cultural Center of Western Massachusetts, discussed their experience of interfaith cooperation between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The keynote speaker was Ismail Acar, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School, who talked about the preconditions for true cross-cultural dialogue.

In a sense, it's comparing apples and oranges, because the "lighting of the Merry Maple" is a full-blown community event that attempts to please all by blurring all differences in the spirit of the homogenized "holiday season," whereas the dinner of the Rumi Club was a more intimate affair that sought common ground in part through acknowledging the legitimacy of difference. I found the latter much more satisfying (and not just because of the imam bayildi).

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