Giving Gifts in a Multi-Ethnic, Multi-Faith Community

Religions of the world
Multi-ethnic neighborhoods have dramatically increased in the past decade  A recent study by the Urban Institute confirms it. More than ever, people from different backgrounds, religious beliefs and customs are coming into daily contact with one another. And this can make holiday seasons and gift-giving seem like a complicated thing.  How do you show your love or respect to your neighbors when you know so little about their culture?

The American Psychological Association suggests that in order to better appreciate the belief systems of other cultures, it is often helpful to begin by exploring your own historical roots, beliefs and values. Becoming aware of the role culture plays in your own life can be an eye-opener when it comes to embracing the customs of other cultures and the faith they practice. Just as you were molded by the people who loved and raised you, so were your neighbors and the new people you meet.

You need only look as far as a calendar to appreciate the religious diversity of the United States, and really, it can feel a little intimidating to choose gifts for people from backgrounds and faiths you’re unfamiliar with. The truth is, some gifts are simply a one-size-fits-all-faiths in which you don’t have to worry about offending the recipient. A thoughtful card, donation to charity or personalized throw blanket are all welcome gifts this wintery time of year. General gifts, like holiday gift baskets, a box of homemade cookies, a large mug with hot cocoa mix or a beautiful houseplant are also thoughtful ways to let someone know that you’re thinking of them, regardless of their faith.  It’s hard to go wrong when you keep it generic.

If you do want to present a gift that’s more in keeping with the faith of the recipient, it helps to know a little about each diverse group.

The early days of December include Ashura, a day during which Sunnis, the largest group of Muslims, celebrate the day the Prophet Muhammad fasted in solidarity with Jews. The Haqqani Fellowship recommends Muslims use this day to donate as much as they can afford to charity. If you want to honor a Muslim on this day, consider making a donation in his name.

The Feast of St. Nicholas may be celebrated by your friends and colleagues from Eastern European and Germanic countries as a time to remember the fourth-century bishop of Myra. Catholic Culture suggests that you give cookies or other baked treats in a stocking.

Your Buddhist acquaintances may celebrate Bodhi Day in December, in remembrance of Siddhartha Gautama who vowed to sit under a tree in India and not rise until he was enlightened. Gifts can include small bells, garland or an ornament featuring an animal with specific symbolism in Buddhism, like an elephant, lion or dragon.

Yule: December 22 – Celebrated primarily by Wiccans and other pagan groups, Yule recognizes the life-giving properties of the sun. Homemade and harvest-related gifts are welcome, as are candles and earthenware.

Christmas: December 25 – The day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ whom they honor as the son of God. Gifts can include anything from the heart – from a handmade item to something you simply believe the recipient would enjoy.

Kwanzaa: December 26 – January 1 – A week-long Pan-African holiday during which gifts are most often given to children. The most highly-valued gifts emphasize the value of learning, such as books and items representing African culture and customs.

Don’t let the cultural and religious variety of your community overwhelm you.  By simply keeping an eye on the calendar, and doing a quick google search on the holidays, you’ll be better prepared to show your loving and thoughtful support — and just be a better neighbor.


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ERNIE PETERS holds a master’s degree in religious studies and loves to write about all of the world’s faiths