Students contend with Christmas

Christmas trees in Schenley Plaza are lit up at night during the holiday season. (Photo by Elise Lavallee | Contributing Editor)

The Cathedral of Learning is adorned with tinsel and stringed lights, Schenley Plaza is lined with luminescent Christmas trees and holiday songs can be heard in almost every building on campus.

For many, this show of holiday spirit is part of the buildup to the biggest holiday of the year — Christmas. For people who don’t celebrate it, the change in atmosphere around Christmastime is less significant.

Tyler Weinstein, a sophomore studying chemical engineering, doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but he’s been affected by the holiday’s culture his entire life. Weinstein, who grew up in a Jewish family, used to sing the Christmas songs he loved when he was younger — which angered his father.

“He would be like, ‘We don’t celebrate Christmas,’ and I would get really upset, like, ‘Dad, they’re so catchy and cute. Just leave me alone,’” Weinstein said.

Roughly 71 percent of Americans identify as Christians, and 92 percent of Americans report celebrating Christmas in some form, even if not religiously. This leaves about 24 million people who do not celebrate Christmas, with many belonging to the other Abrahamic religions — Judaism and Islam — that recognize the life of Jesus Christ, but not his divinity.

Many non-Christian students at Pitt have created their own traditions for Christmas Day, even if no gifts are exchanged. Alec Cantor, a junior studying computer engineering, said his Jewish family uses Christmas Day as a time to enjoy a movie and meal together.

“You always hear the jokes about Jews going to the movies and to eat Chinese food — yeah, we’ve done that, that’s not actually a stereotype,” Cantor said.

Weinstein doesn’t spend Christmas Day eating Chinese food — instead, he eats with his extended Christian family.

“[Christmas] is kind of awkward because it’s the Christians’ thing — when I’m with my family I’m like, ‘Y’all are getting presents and I’m kind of just eating your food,’” Weinstein said.

Weinstein said he chooses not to participate in his extended family’s Christmas gift exchange since his immediate family doesn’t recognize the holiday. But Weinstein isn’t the only student who feels awkward about a Christmas gift exchange.

While many students said they feel satisfied not celebrating Christmas, others still expressed a feeling of jealousy toward people who receive presents on Christmas. Mohamed Kashkoush, a first-year pharmacy student, said he used to wish that his Muslim family would participate in a Christmas-like gift exchange. On the two main Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, families often exchange small gifts of money.

“As a kid, I wanted to celebrate Christmas secularly, just as a national holiday — but probably just for the gifts, if I’m being honest. Just materialism,” Kashkoush said.

Aside from Christmas, other holidays — such as Hanukkah — involve gifts. But Jewish families most likely started exchanging gifts on Hanukkah as a response to Christian culture, according to Dianne Ashton, an American studies professor at Rowan University. Kashkoush said both Hanukkah and Christmas involve a kind of materialism that, now that he’s older, he is happy to avoid.

“I remember being jealous of the expensive gifts that my friends would get from Hanukkah or Christmas, because that doesn’t happen with Islamic holidays. But as I grew up, I realized it was all materialism that didn’t matter,” Kashkoush said.

The ground floor of the Cathedral of Learning is decorated with Christmas trees and gift boxes for the holiday season. (Photo by Elise Lavallee | Contributing Editor)

While gift exchanges are central to celebrating Christmas, the holiday season is also shaped by Christmas-themed songs and holiday decor. Both Kashkoush and Weinstein said they could recite the lyrics of several Christmas songs, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells.”

Historically, Christmas has been celebrated in December as an approximation of when Jesus Christ was born — although his real birthdate is uncertain. Weinstein, Cantor and Kashkoush all said they view Christmas as more of a secular holiday than a religious one. Kashkoush said as a Muslim, he was taught that Jesus was a prophet — not the son of God — which affected his perception of the holiday.

“I know when I was younger, I was told, ‘That’s not even his real birthday.’ So I always viewed it with some skepticism — like, this holiday doesn’t make sense,” Kashkoush said.

Weinstein also said he viewed Christmas with some skepticism, especially when his friends spoke about Santa Claus.

“Whenever I was a kid, I was like, ‘Ooh, I should tell all these little Christian kids that Santa isn’t real,’ because I was, like, super evil then. I didn’t do it because I was too kind,” Weinstein said.

Despite their disbelief in the religiosity of Christmas, both agreed that the Christmas season is generally good for morale.

“People get really excited about Christmas, and whenever anybody else is happy, I’m happy,” Weinstein said.

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