Growing up in a Christian household, Jane Emerson* went to church frequently and celebrated Christian holidays without fault. Now, Emerson does not celebrate these holidays out of faith, but rather for the way they bring people together in the winter.
According to Emerson, she now considers herself to be agnostic despite her upbringing.
“[Being agnostic] means that I don’t identify with a religion but I’m open to the possibility of there being a god,” Emerson said.
Emerson states that her family still celebrates Christmas by going to church and opening presents on Christmas morning. Even though Emerson no longer follows Christianity, her family doesn’t judge her.
“[My family is] pretty open-minded [about me being agnostic] as long as I respect their beliefs and they respect mine,” Emerson said. “I still go to church with them out of support occasionally. The only thing I do differently is that I don’t take communion when we go.”
Being a part of one religion is something Emerson states she is not interested in.
“As I’ve grown up, I’ve [realized] that I didn’t feel like I had to identify with a particular religion so I decided that agnosticism was a good way to label myself,” Emerson said.
*Name has been changed
As the winter holiday season approaches, anticipation and excitement are in the air. For senior Seth Davenport and his father, who practice Zen Buddhism, winter means living in the present, especially as winter break comes to an end and school looms overhead.
Davenport and his father believe that the only important moment in their lives is the present.
“Of course you can learn from the past, but you shouldn’t dwell in the past,” Davenport said. “You shouldn’t dread the future all the time [as well]. I try to focus on the present when I’m going through any problems [so] I can figure out what to do.”
Instead of focusing on the ending of winter break, Davenport says that he turns his attention towards the happiness he is feeling in the moment.
“Sometimes I would be really enjoying [winter break], and then a thought would cross my mind that it will be over at some point,” Davenport said. “Usually, I just slide that off. [I think to] myself that it’s not over right now, so I should enjoy my time with my family while I’m here.”
Despite his Buddhist beliefs, Davenport also continues to celebrate Christmas as a means of spending time with his family.
“[My celebration] isn’t religious, but I do get together with the rest of my family,” Davenport said. “We exchange gifts and partake in the sharing of [meals] and spend time together.”
Cozy fairy lights, a wondrous sight of white, fluffy snow, and the sweet, warm scent of pumpkin spice can only mean one thing for South students: wintertime and the upcoming holiday season, including Christmas, a holiday that many students hold dear to their hearts.
According to sophomore Haley Kim, she spends Christmas day in a way that is special to her family’s Korean background: eating a whole lot of kimchi.
“I like [combining Korean traditions for Christmas] because you still maintain that idea of where you are from,” Kim said. “You still maintain that idea of where you’re from and you get more of a familiar and comfortable feeling when you are surrounded by your culture.”
As part of the Serbian Orthodox Church, sophomore Marina Markovic celebrates Christmas on January 7th which is, according to Markovic, a totally different approach than other cultures. Markovic says that her family has various Christmas traditions, but that isn’t the main focus of the holiday.
“We have a coin in our bread [that] you break, and whoever gets the coin is the luckiest person for the year,” Markovic said. “[However] that’s not really [what Christmas] is about for us. It’s about being together.”
South’s diverse student body allows for a deeper exploration of different holidays that are celebrated around the globe. One of these religious holidays is Diwali, a five-day Hindu festival of lights in November.
Freshman Milan Chander celebrates Diwali with prayers, a feast and by decorating his home. According to Chander, each day’s specific decorations worship a different deity. For example, the first day he decorates with candles and flowers, and the second is with luxurious objects, Chander says.
“My religion gives me something to look forward to every year,” Chander said. “The religious texts [show me] how I can live my life.
For freshman Vanya Gupta, Diwali is an important holiday since her family is not religious otherwise. Her family conducts a two to three hour long puja, or prayer session, and has other celebrations.
“The dinner is definitely the biggest part,” Gupta said. “We have ginormous Diwali parties. We’ll put on Indian music, we’ll dance, and we’ll have a lot of fun.”
Gupta said these holidays and her Hindu background are a big part of who she is.
“If I didn’t celebrate [Diwali], I wouldn’t be myself,” Gupta said. “[Learning about my people] has made a pretty big impact [on] me.”
The upcoming celebration for the birthday of Shah Karim Al Hussaini, the Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili branch of Islam’s spiritual leader, brings excitement for sophomore Nzah Tajuddin. Holiday festivities are filled with henna decorating, feasting on cake and mango sharbat, and being among her friends and family, according to Tajuddin.
Held on Dec. 13, this celebration of honoring a religious leader is an enjoyable experience, according to Tajuddin, and the main way to celebrate their religious leader is with a long prayer. Although the prayers are important, Tajuddin says that her favorite activities take place after the extended prayers have come to an end.
“Usually, [prayers are] extended because we do extra ones for our spiritual leader,” Tajuddin said. “[After], I can see all of my friends and eat cake and sharbat. That’s the highlight of my day.”
Even though Tajuddin’s branch of Islam celebrates during the winter season, senior Zainab Shareef has no unique festivities during the holidays. Although Shareef doesn’t celebrate a holiday during the winter specific to her religion, she continues to believe that no matter what religion is being celebrated, it is important to be proud of what the celebration is about.
“When it comes to the little things we overhype it,” Shareef said. “I’m really proud of my religion and where I come from so I think I have the right to overhype it and be really excited about it.”
The sun has set and senior Dylan Goldberg stands around the hanukiah with his family, ready to celebrate a night of Hanukkah. Placed in front of the window, the lit hanukiah, with eight candle holders and a center shamash, stands out against the dark. This year, Hanukkah fell on Dec. 3 through Dec. 10.
Both Goldberg and David Berkson, Western Religions teacher, emphasized that Hanukkah is not a huge holiday in the Jewish faith. Berkson believes that this misconception comes from Hanukkah’s proximity to winter break and it’s modern similarities with Christmas, such as gift giving.
“The story [of Hanukkah] represents a time in which a temple was destroyed,” Berkson said. “An important element of Judaism is that in all Temples or Synagogues, where the Torah is held, there’s an eternal flame. [The Holy Temple] was destroyed, and there was only enough oil left to burn for one day, but it burned for eight. In terms of importance, [Hanukkah is] a bit lower because there are other holidays that take precedent, [such as Passover or Yom Kippur].”
Hanukkah comes with many traditions, according to Goldberg. A tradition unique to Goldberg’s family is called ‘Fry Fest’, in which his family and friends come together to eat and celebrate oil.
“The food is always my favorite part of it,” Goldberg said. “We would fry anything and everything that we could, [such as donut and latkes].”