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Ram: Celebrating Differences

The commentator at an early age with her Punjabi grandparents by the Christmas tree, circa 1989.

Many of us look to the holiday season as an antidote to the strife and struggle in the world around us, perhaps tuning out divisive politics – or at least trying to avoid discussing the latest tweets or subpoenas at family gatherings.

But instead of simply leaving silence around the political differences among us, I think the holidays can help us develop deeper compassion and curiosity for the diverse beliefs and traditions in our communities.

With a Jewish American mother and Indian immigrant father, my family often burned both oil lamps and menorahs from early November well into December. The family ran an Irish pub, so Christmas was second only to St. Patrick’s Day. We also lived in Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles, so it was a joyful time to see our neighbors impeccably dressed in white for Ganna, the Christmas celebration that runs from December 25th to January 7th in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In fact, as a self-proclaimed “HinJew” I’m happy to hear classic Christmas music on the radio right after Halloween.

Vermont may look more culturally homogenous than Los Angeles, but just beneath the surface, there are generations of immigrants that still pass down Quebecois, Italian, German, and Bosnian family recipes. There are 45 languages and many more dialects spoken in the Burlington School District, and probably as many cultural traditions around the holidays for young people to explore and incorporate into their understanding of the season. Among our refugee resettlement sites, it’s likely we now have as many devout Hindus and Muslims as we do observant Jews and Christians.

I expect even most atheists can appreciate uniquely American cultural traditions like eating Chinese food while watching the delightfully dysfunctional A Christmas Story or staying in pajamas to rerun classics like It’s a Wonderful Life. And it’s a good time to celebrate the creative spirit the holidays inspire - like seeing The Nutcracker Ballet or supporting handmade crafts made by local artisans.

Whatever our individual traditions, this time of year is about being a light in the darkness, illuminating both our similarities and our differences, and admiring them with awe in the same way we do each individual snowflake falling from the sky.

Kesha Ram is a former state legislator and the interim director of the Center for Whole Communities in Burlington. She will study in the Master of Public Administration program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government this fall.
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