Multicultural learning in the time of Christmas: A conversation with Michael Moodian and Lata Murti
A Christmas tree is the first thing you see walking into a Brandman campus in December, raising the question: How does that relate to the university’s core value of respect for all cultures?
We turned to two Brandman experts for answers: Associate Professor Michael Moodian, who teaches multicultural communication among other courses, and Associate Professor Lata Murti, a sociologist. Here is their edited conversation.
Many cultures have winter holidays - is there a common theme?
Moodian: If you look at a lot of the various holidays that take place across the globe in the month of December, Christmas is the major holiday. Often times there will be a very large segment of the population that will celebrate it. There’s also Hanukkah for those of the Jewish faith. There are many others: the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is very big in Mexico; there’s Kwanzaa, of course; there’s St. Lucy’s day, which is celebrated in Europe. There’s Boxing Day, in Canada and the U.K. And pagan observances (winter solstice). A common theme is often a coming to the end of a year, a time for reflection.
The weather tends to take a turn toward cold. There’s more time at home, cooking and being together. It’s often a period during which people look back and reflect. They’re grateful for what they have and then look forward to the next year. The faith-based holidays have those familiar components: family, faith and reflection on the previous year.
Murti: I’m really glad you mentioned the reflection part. That may be the more universal connection. I don’t know that it’s always a celebratory time.
That’s certainly not the case in India. I’ve never known this to be a time of celebration in India. It’s considered an inauspicious time. It is a time of reflection and atonement. You’re not supposed to have weddings or other celebratory events from about mid- December through about mid-January. I was asking my dad about it, and he said he had never thought about it but it probably is connected to the shorter, darker and colder days – that people aren’t supposed to go out and celebrate.
I think because of the dominance of Christmas in the west, but particularly in the United States, we like to think that everybody is celebrating the winter solstice somehow. But that really isn’t the case. I think you put it best, Mike, it is a time of reflection. The celebratory part – that’s all Christian.
What are some of the connections of other holidays to Christmas?
Murti: The idea of Kwanzaa didn’t come around until the ‘60s – it grew out of Christmas so Christmas is still at the center. Then there’s Diwali (late October, early November), how do we make sense of it? We call it the Indian Christmas. You can draw parallels, light over darkness. But is it celebrating the birth of Christ or the winter solstice? No.
I grew up in the ‘80s. We didn’t really celebrate until I went to preschool and kindergarten and started learning about it at school. I asked my parents, ‘Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we have Santa? I asked for a Christmas tree but really had little idea of what we were doing. What we did learn was gift giving was obligatory.
So now we do it for my kids.
I think it’s good that there are these other options for people. If you don’t want to celebrate Christmas, you have the solstice, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah. I learned about Hanukkah in school, too, but it wasn’t until later that I learned it wasn’t (orignally) a major holiday.
Brandman includes respect among its core values. How is respect for other cultures included in the curriculum?
Moodian: The whole idea of cross-cultural competence is at the forefront.
Murti: That’s more Mike’s area than mine. We teach it slightly differently. What I emphasize is why certain cultures get privileged in certain context in the U.S. I tend to focus on that.
Moodian: Lata’s done excellent work in that area. I would also add that one thing I’m very proud of, all of our bachelor’s degrees – even the ones outside the School of Arts and Sciences – have to take multiculturalism into account. Arts and Sciences has always had a strong emphasis on understanding other cultures.
Murti: We have a very multicultural and diverse faculty and student population. I’ve learned a lot from them, not just because of their backgrounds but because of the experiences in the military or traveling for their jobs. Many don’t take for granted that we’re all celebrating the same holidays at the same time.
Moodian: When I teach intercultural communication, I ask every student to bring a relic from home that is representative of their culture. Some have fun with it, you know, baseball caps and things like that. It helps solidify the fact that we’re all part of a cultural identity and to also learn about each other.
Murti: That speaks to the power of the face-to-face component of our courses. I was just thinking: How would I reproduce that in fully online? I supposed they could share an image.
Moodian: Remember when you wrote that piece about pay and how we discussed it? Was there a cross-cultural component to that as well?
Murti: There was. In some cultures, sharing that information (about how much you earn) isn’t taboo. It’s not considered rude or intrusive.
For some people, the idea of “war on Christmas” or saying “Happy holidays vs. “Merry Christmas” is part of the picture. How do you deal with that? Does it ever come up in class?
Murti: I think it’s been different for me at different stages of life. I struggle with it on a personal level. I see what people are saying and not being Christian myself but growing up in a Christian community, I can’t really sympathize with that view (that there’s a war on Christmas). I try to make it a time of celebration and joy and that’s how I approach it. I like saying “happy holidays,” to people. It brings a smile, and I’m all for it.
Moodian: This session ends just before holiday season begins. There have been times I’ve said, have a wonderful holiday season. There’s nothing wrong with being thoughtful in your communication with other people.
Murti: I can understand it in the sense that it’s become more about consumption than giving, but what holiday isn’t in the U.S.? My 9-year-old (went to the mall in November and) came back and said, ‘They already have Christmas decorations up,” and I said, ‘Let’s put them up.’ She was like, “Mom, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet. You’re getting to be like the stores.’
What should students, faculty and staff keep in mind this time of year?
Murti: That there’s no one way to spend this time of year. We all do different things. There have been several years when colleagues felt sorry for me. I stayed home and worked on my dissertation while the rest traveled. Some catch up on their work, some go to conferences. There have been times when my family hasn’t been together – people were appalled – on Christmas day. I just want people to know it doesn’t mean something is wrong. If you really want to know if someone is OK, just ask.
Moodian: Everyone has worked very hard during this last year. My students inspire me every day. We ask a lot of our students. It’s not easy to get through these eight-week classes. Take some time to rest and be thankful for what we have and get ready for the new year.
Any final thoughts?
Murti: I love adding the university’s holiday greeting to an email. I do feel like it’s always a warm universal greeting. It doesn’t hold any one faith over another and I think that captures the spirit of the university.
Moodian: Individuals from all religious faith and all backgrounds and all walks of life are welcome here. We value each other in the classroom. We value each other’s’ perspectives.
Murti: We try to emphasize that in our courses. I don’t think that’s true of all universities and colleges.
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