Keeping the Holidays Politically Correct

First of all, Happy New Year! It’s a time to reflect on the past year, make goals for the new one, and to watch the Twilight Zone marathon.

Like most other college students this winter, I’ve been reveling in the joy of purely doing nothing. Last week, cocooned in a pile of blankets, I started watching NBC’s new series Outsourced. It’s about a young, American salesman who comes back from corporate training to discover that all the jobs at his company have been outsourced to India. If he wants to keep his job as call manager, he must relocate to India and oversee a misfit group of workers – the girl who never speaks, the one who never stops talking, the one trying to sabotage him, and of course the attractive one. You get the idea.

As I watched the episodes, I had a vague feeling of discomfort. Indian stereotypes are highlighted and a source of entertainment for this show. How would my friends feel about seeing their culture parodied in such a way? How would a show like this be received in India or other countries? My discomfort came to a peak when I watched the episode “Home for the Diwalidays”. Todd, the ignorant American, comes to the office and is surprised to find his employees dressed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. He is even more surprised to find that they expect to have the afternoon off from work as well as the rest of the five-day holiday! Earlier in the season, Todd was tricked into thinking there was an Indian holiday called “Jolly Vindaloo Day”, and so thinks that the employees are playing another prank.

All the employees contribute to the explanation of Diwali, saying that it is “about the triumph of good over evil, the beginning of the new year, and it marks the end of the harvest. It [also] commemorates Lord Rama’s glorious return after 14 years of exile and his defeat of the demon king Ravana.”

Todd, trying to understand then exclaims, “Wow! So it’s like a combination of Christmas, New Year’s, 4th of July and Star Wars?”

An employee, Asha, laughingly replies that Todd should “just think of it like Christmas, it’s where families get together. They exchange gifts.” (Yes, I did watch this scene many, many times to write down all the quotes!)

I am torn as to how I should feel about this episode. On the one hand, people watching Outsourced who have never before heard of Diwali have now had some exposure, however small, to a Hindu religious holiday. On the other hand, the significance behind both Diwali and Christmas is diluted by making two very different holidays equivalent to each other. I’m sure that many Hindus would not appreciate having Diwali called “Hindu Christmas”, just as many Christians would not want Christmas to be referred to as “Christian Diwali”.

Though Todd still doesn’t truly understand Diwali, the comparison to Christmas makes him realize that this is truly an important holiday for his employees and does his best to convince corporate that they should receive time off. After all, no one would have been expected to work had it been Christmas. Told that since it is an American company, the employees cannot expect to get Indian holidays off from work, Todd decides to let his employees go anyway and to do all the work himself – slightly redeeming himself in my eyes.

This brings me to what I feel is an important issue, especially in America. Have you ever noticed that winter or spring break often coincides with Christmas and Easter? Did your elementary school inexplicably have a day off of school on Good Friday, like mine did? Maybe. How about on Eid? Probably not. Bodhi Day? Also unlikely. This past semester I was in a class entitled “Exploring Religious Diversity” where we discussed the difficulties facing non-Christians when celebrating their holidays. A Jewish classmate brought up her experience with a difficult TA who refused to excuse her from class on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Sukkot; she had to talk to the dean of students in order to be able to leave class. My teacher said that she has to pick and choose which of her Buddhist holidays to take off work for, because she would have to use all her vacation and sick days if she chose not to work on all of them.

As a secular student raised in a Christian household, I cannot even pretend to understand how it must feel to be unable to celebrate a holiday or worship due to work or school-related obligations. Just a few years ago, I myself was guilty of thinking Hannukah and Christmas to be comparable holidays due to their proximity in the calendar year. Like Todd, I would probably have readily accepted the explanation that Diwali is similar to Christmas. So how do we address this problem and increase education about holidays from traditions other than our own? Is it simply enough to say, “Happy holidays!” instead of always wishing everyone “Merry Christmas!”? Is it the responsibility of the people in these faith traditions to teach others about their holidays? Is it even possible for schools and workplaces to give students and employees time off for all religious holidays?

I don’t really have the answers to some of these questions, but I firmly believe that increasing interfaith education, especially for young people, will only help with any future policy changes we may wish to see regarding excused absences for holidays.

Interested in keeping up to date on religious holidays? BBC has a fantastic interfaith calendar on their website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/tools/calendar/

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