Religious Hegemony, Christian Normativity, & The Language Around the Holiday Season
As days get shorter and shorter in December in the Netherlands, most people get into the Christmas spirit. It is hard to miss it: the city, the workplaces, as well as university buildings, are covered with Christmas decorations, shops are advertising their Christmas discounts, the radio is playing Christmas songs… It is everywhere. However, the universities in Groningen, or anywhere in the so-called West, host students with non-Christian backgrounds and across the religious spectrum. It is a time when they might struggle to fit into a Christian normative style of living and celebrating. It is a time when the sense of inclusion and belonging is challenged in the face of Christian normativity.
A little disclaimer might be necessary, so as to not be misunderstood. Celebrating and enjoying Christmas is amazing! Inviting non-Christian friends to celebrate is also great! However, alongside the enjoyment we must critically reflect on the privileges it grants to some and takes away from others. To do so, we must look at what Christian normativity and hegemony mean to non-observers.
Students who observe other religions than Christianity or observe no religion at all, as well as students who come from a Christian background/family, yet do not celebrate Christmas, can feel left out of the loop. They are made invisible. And this invisibility is reminded to them with every Merry Christmas wish they receive, even when it is said with good intentions.
It is perfectly okay to ask people whether they celebrate any religious holiday or observe a tradition –regardless of their nationality, skin color, or mother language/s-. If you know the person, feel free to say Merry Christmas if they are practicing Christians; Happy Hanukkah if they are practicing Jews (given that it is the right time of the month to say so), and so on. However, more inclusive greetings are possible and they make it easier for everyone. Consider this: hearing Merry Christmas over and over again when you are someone who celebrates Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or nothing at all, you could feel excluded or lonelier –like your beliefs and practices are not valued, respected, or even seen by the other person/society-. For Jews, for example, as Hanukkah falls so close to Christmas, inevitably there is a strong sense of distancing, as there are no bank holidays to enable those who want to celebrate to do so.
This is a great problem with the normativity of Christianity. Even if someone is a Christian, yet does not identify religiously with Christianity, they still get to indulge in the cultural aspects that come with the festivities, such as the food, the decoration, the music, etc. Above all - they have designated time from the government which allows them to at least rest and at best celebrate with family and friends. Other cultures and religions are not granted the same benefits, as they need to take exams, go to lectures, and work, among other things, during a time in which they could be with their family, friends, or communities. Especially for international students who only get to come home to their student dorms and as they often cannot travel during their cultural or religious celebrations to be with loved ones or in an environment where they can culturally connect.
Christmas, Family, and Further Complications
Another problem with the centralization of Christmas in the Dutch culture is that it fixes its focus on family time. It is important to remark that Christmas is not inherently jolly or merry for all. For students whose families are abusive, this time of the year either reminds them of their traumatic experiences or pushes them to spend time with abusive family members. Queer people, young and old, frequently report experiences of bullying, stress, and anxiety due to their involvement with immediate or extended family during Christmas celebrations. The end of December might bring joy to some, but for others, it is a stressful, or even nerve-wracking, time of the year, even though Andy Williams will have you believe it is the most wonderful time of the year…
On Christian Normativity and Religious Hegemony
Wishing someone a happy holiday season is great, however, December is not the only holiday season in the calendar. For starters, many Orthodox Christians annually celebrate Christmas Day on or near January 7th. Yom Kippur is often considered the holiest day of the year for Jewish people, and usually is in September or October, but it changes every year. Same with Diwali in October/November. Similarly, Eid al Fitr (End of Ramadan) for Muslims is in May 2022 and will be in January 2032. Assuming the most important holidays happen in December stems from the hegemony of the Christian worldview, or Christian hegemony.
Religious hegemony is defined as the dominant group, in this case mainly Christians, disseminating their dominant social constructions (practices, celebrations, values, etc. ) as common sense, normative, or even universal, even though most of the world's inhabitants are not Christian (Smith & Harter, 2002). Beaman remarks that the binary opposition of sameness and difference is reflected in Christian religion vs. non-Christian minority religion in which mainstream Christianity is representative of the 'normal' (2003). Christian hegemony refers to the normalization of Christian values and practices. They are seen not only as the norm (Kivel, 2009) but also as more virtuous and superior (Blumenfeld, 2006). Following this line of logic, Christian hegemony operates through the erasure or distortion of other faiths, and the ongoing, ahistorical portrayal of Christian normativity and superiority. (Seifert, 2007; Kumashiro, 2015).
On one hand, hegemony is about normativity, dominance, and superiority. On the other hand, it is about marginalization, erasure, and oppression. Diversity and inclusion are always at stake where hegemony persists. In that sense, Kivel also argues (2009): “holidays are great when they reaffirm our connections to family and friends, are inclusive, build community and honor accurate histories [...] Holidays become destructive and exclusive when they are proclaimed as universal but are actually culturally specific or when they are based on historical lies and perpetuate misinformation. We need to think seriously about what we celebrate and why, who is included or excluded in the celebration and what values are implicitly or explicitly communicated.”
The Problem, in a Nutshell.
There seem to be two inconsistencies around the discussions and discourses of wishing Merry Christmas to people. Firstly, universities in white-majority and Christian-majority countries put forward discourses of diversity and inclusion. They advertise and boast about their internationalization and benefit from the successes of their non-Christian students and teaching staff. However, in reality, they do little to nothing to include non-Christian celebrations in their academic calendars or to provide a platform where Christian hegemony can be debated and creative solutions can be reached. Secondly, the public display of Christianity within Dutch campuses is normalized, taken for granted, and never challenged. On the other hand, public displays of other faiths and spiritualities might go under great scrutiny. They might be challenged or met with protest and hatred, or never spoken about, silenced. In his article, Kevin Singer recounts seeing several signs by a large Christian student organization at his university campus and learning that the organization never got into trouble for it, even though it is strictly prohibited. He writes “what would happen if the Muslim Student Association or the Freethinkers group bike-locked large signs to streetlights and trees all over campus? Would they be received in the same way? The disheartening answer is most likely not.” (2017). Or to give a more concrete example, headscarf-wearing Muslims are scrutinized and are prohibited from wearing religious symbols across different parts of Europe. This shows how religious hegemony affects students, too.
Within university context it is not uncommon to get a Merry Christmas wish, maybe from a professor, a colleague, or in an email from the university administration. Everytime this happens, Christian hegemony and normativity is felt by people who do not observe Christmas for whatever reason. These could easily be avoided by consistently adjusting our language around this holiday season.
What are the Alternatives Though?
- “Happy Holidays”, “Season’s Greetings” or “May your holidays be full of warmth and cheer.”
Saying one of these is a way to wish everyone well without making an assumption about their religion, or lack thereof. It is absolutely allowed to wish all the folks a happy holiday season or send them season’s greetings. It is important to note that. However, be mindful if you’re communicating with a person who lives in a country where Christmas is not an official holiday. In that case, people do not get days off, so it makes little sense to extend them holiday wishes.
- “Happy Hanukkah”, “Joyous Kwanzaa”, and “Happy New Year.”
If you know someone personally, you can of course wish them a fitting greeting. It is ok to ask if someone is observing a tradition this time of the year. They may even be celebrating the new year. There is also no problem with wishing Merry Christmas to a practicing Christian that you personally know. It is problematic and not inclusive to say so when addressing mixed groups of people.
- “Have a joyous solstice” or “Warm winter wishes.”
Sticking to the facts might be another smart move during this time of the year. The fact that it is the winter solstice (at least in the northern hemisphere) does not change depending on the person, so it is a safe bet. Although be careful; you might want to send your acquaintances living in the southern hemisphere warm summer wishes!
- “Wishing you your well-deserved rest and relaxation over the winter break.”
Unfortunately, not all people have the choice of having a calm and relaxing holiday time. Family obligations, toxic relations, long travel distances to see the family, and chores to be taken care of in a full house are some of the many reasons why many do not have a happy holiday. Some students also cannot afford to go see their families or might be unable to due to conflict or war. Wishing rest and relaxation might be more fitting than happiness.
- “May the rest of your year remain cheery and glittery”, and “Wishing you a new year full of peace and joy.”
If you are communicating with people in countries that use the Gregorian calendar (for example the Netherlands) why not focus on the new year and what it might bring. It is hopeful and does not assume the person’s religion and cultural practices.
- “Thanks for a great year & looking forward to working with you again”
“Thank you for your support in the past year”
It is always great to reflect on the nice and cooperative times spent together and to hint at the continuity of mutual support for the future.
Beaman, L. G. (2003). "The myth of pluralism, diversity, and vigor: The constitutional privilege of Protestantism in the United States and Canada". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 42 (3): 311–325. doi:10.1111/1468-5906.00183
Blumenfeld, W. (2006). Christian Privilege and the Promotion of “Secular” and Not-So “Secular” Mainline Christianity in Public Schooling and in the Larger Society. Equity & Excellence in Education, 39(3), 195–210.
Kivel, P. (2009). About Christian Hegemony. Challenging Christian Hegemony. http://christianhegemony.org/
Kumashiro, K. (2015). Against common sense: teaching and learning toward social justice (3rd edition.). Routledge.
Seifert, T. (2007). Understanding Christian Privilege: Managing the Tensions of Spiritual Plurality. About Campus, 12(2), 10–17.
Singer, K. (2017). Looking Through the Eyes of the Other: Coming to Grips with Christian Normativity. Retrieved from http://www.theinterfaithobserver.org/journal-articles/2017/12/12/coming-to-grips-with-christian-normativity-in-higher-education
Smith, D. J. & Harter, P. M. (2002). If the world were a village: A book about the world's people. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.