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Feature

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A party for all

Tips on celebrating year-end holidays

By Dee Anne Bonebright

From Brief, Dec. 6, 2006; updated Dec. 5, 2007

The University community is exploring ways to recognize our diversity of beliefs and traditions when it comes to seasonal celebrations. As a result, staff are often uncertain about the best way to celebrate the holidays in the office. This uncertainty can lead to two different types of mistakes. The first is to plan "holiday" celebrations that resemble Christmas parties in disguise. The other is to do nothing at all.

If it looks like Christmas and sounds like Christmas...

Office celebrations in December can easily take on a flavor of Christmas, no matter what they are called. Businesses and schools in the United States typically follow the Christian calendar because that has historically been the majority religion.

"This leads to a situation in which organizations say, in effect, we don't honor any particular religion--and yet, if you're a Christian you get all your holidays off," says Barbara Kappler, an assistant director in International Student and Scholar Services.

It is no longer possible to make assumptions about what people believe and how they like to celebrate. Even within the Christian faith, there is now much more variety about how and sometimes when holidays are celebrated.

It is usually not appropriate for officially sponsored events to center around Christmas. If your department is having a party in December, choose a non-religious theme such as the end of the semester or the start of winter. Kappler encourages units to sit down and consider the purpose of a party. If the goal is team-building and socializing, then it's important to create an environment where everyone feels accepted.

Celebrating creatively

On the other hand, Kappler thinks some organizations make the opposite error.

"We aren't sure what to do, so we do nothing at all," she says. "Aren't we creative enough to figure out how to do something other than nothing?"

Imagining ways to share traditions

As the University community learns to celebrate its diversity, it is likely that we will become more skilled in holiday celebrations as well. Imagine, for example, an office in which students, staff, and clients are comfortable sharing in each other's traditions.

In December, there might be a display case featuring Professor Jones's collection of Christmas tree ornaments and a sign explaining how his grandmother brought them from Germany. In September, the display might feature items reflecting the Jewish holy days. There might also be an informal agreement to not serve food at staff meetings during Ramadan.

A respectful environment must be created according to the needs of each work group. Using holiday celebrations as a time for learning and sharing can be an effective way to help get there.

Holidays provide a chance to celebrate together and learn about each other's significant events. Francine Morgan, human resources consultant in the Office of Human Resources, enjoys sharing food and other items that reflect important events or holidays in her life. At this time of year, she brings in a basket of Hanukkah candy and dreidls to share with colleagues.

In many places around the world, several primary religions have co-existed for centuries. As a result, people can be much more comfortable with religious festivals and celebrations.

Ranja Yusuf, a senior editor in University Relations, spent some time living in Malaysia. As an American, she says it was enlightening to see the ways in which people honor each other's holidays. Within a few months, she had been invited to a feast for the end of the Muslim festival of Ramadan; a celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights; a Christian feast for Christmas; and a celebration of the Chinese New Year. While it is common for people of different faiths in Malaysia to be invited to the homes of friends for such celebrations, these religious celebrations don't usually enter the workplace. Employee parties are more likely to focus on holidays like the new year or national (independence) day.

In India, however, it's common to see multiple holiday celebrations in a workplace. Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a research assistant in Work/Human Resource Education, says that each state in India has its own celebration--in addition to holidays observed by people from different religious backgrounds. And traditionally, workplaces have honored as many of them as possible.

Ishani Baruah, a graduate student in the College of Education and Human Development who is employed by a transnational corporation, agrees that this tradition reflects a cultural difference between India and the United States.

"I think the number of holidays also points out a work culture where family and social festivals take precedence over work," she says.

For Kappler, the goal is not to refuse to celebrate major religious holidays at work.

"The point," she concludes, "is to be creative and open about how you do it."

Finding information on religious holidays

If your office wants to celebrate in December, take time to understand the significance of the various religious traditions that occur during this time. Use it as an opportunity to learn about different cultural practices.

The University's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action has posted a Religious Holiday Calendar. Check it out to avoid conflicts with major department events. You can also use it to plan department cultural awareness activities.

Major religious holidays are also identified in the student Gopher Guide, available at University Bookstores on the Twin Cities campus.

FURTHER READING "Reevaluating seasonal office parties," by Dee Anne Bonebright and Julie Sweitzer