What with people all of a sudden “believing” that Obama is a Muslim, and the efforts by some fringe anti-Constitutionalists to prevent the building of an Islamic community center in Manhattan, a story about Ramadan on National Public Radio last week really captured my interest.  Not because it perpetuated the tired “Muslim = enemy” meme, but because it described a concern within the Muslim community that sounded very familiar to these raised-to-be-Christian ears.

“We have 30 days of Christmas Eve full of banquets and food,” [says sociologist Said Sadek]. “Egypt consumes three times its normal food consumption during the month of Ramadan.”

There is some consternation within the Muslim community that Muslims sometimes get a little too self-indulgent with food, parties and materialism during Ramadan.  Sounds remarkably similar to the annual plea “Jesus is the reason for the season” from Christians worried that the religious meaning of Christmas is getting lost under a mountain of merchandise.

A quick romp through Google shows that all three of the Abrahamic religions (Judiasm, Christianity and Islam) share a fundamental commonality: the very human desire of their followers to enjoy and indulge.A personal note: Although I was “raised up right” to be a Christian, I am in fact an atheist.  However, this diary is not to be interpreted as an anti-religious “gotcha”.  On the contrary, I’m writing about the universality of human nature despite the specific religious frameworks that may be overlain upon it.  As I sit here eating a cookie I don’t need, I’m proving that this body without a religious bone in it is just as vulnerable to as any to pleasure.

Ramadan

Ramadan is the 9th month of the year on the Islamic calendar.  For 2010, that translates into August 11/12 to September 9/10.  Ramadan is a time when:

…Muslims all over the world abstain from food, drink, and other physical needs during the daylight hours. As a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice, Ramadan is much more than just not eating and drinking.

Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance. We are to make peace with those who have wronged us, strengthen ties with family and friends, do away with bad habits — essentially to clean up our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings.

At sunset, the fast is broken with the iftar, a meal traditionally made at home and shared in the company of family and friends.  But that’s not how it always happens, and some Muslims are expressing their disappointment at the excesses they see.  The conversation is happening everywhere from online fora

My mother made a rant today when coming back from food shopping.  She notices each year families “over-cooking”, “over-buying” food which at the end just go to the bin because it was too much, as if and i quote “they never ate anything in their life”

to major publications:

Year after year we tear into our iftar feasts before the last of the prayer calls has even faded. Overeating has been a Ramadan tradition for as long as I can remember.

What has exacerbated the situation over the last two decades is the extent to which hotels, restaurants and cafes have commercialized the holy months, with extravagant five-star buffets replacing intimate family meals. That’s before we even get to the ubiquitous money-spinning Ramadan tents.

Overindulgence and excess when breaking your fast are not, and never were, what Ramadan is about. … Ramadan is intended as a time of peaceful contemplation and of empathy with those less fortunate than us.

By the way, the first US president to host an iftar wasn’t Barack Obama, it was Thomas Jefferson.

Christmas

Christianity and the ongoing disagreements among its adherents about how Christmas it should be observed are so ubiquitous in the United States that it’s hardly necessary to describe here.  Perhaps the lyrics of the familiar Christmas ditty “This is that Time of the Year” best captures the current state of affairs:

This is that time of the year

A tinselly, glittery time

Dumpling and goose and pudding and pie

Perfect excuse to go right off your diet!

‘Cause this is that time of the year

A holly and jolly old time

Snow on your roof, your face and your shoes,

And presents that you’ll never use!

Suffice it to say that Americans, whether Christian or not, are fully aware that the holiday has been excessively merchandised to the point that quasi-religious organizations and political parties try to capitalize on the debate.  Remember Focus on the Family’s “Stand For Christmas” scheme last year where Tom Minnery told us that “Christ is the centerpiece of our holiday season”, then shoved the Baby Jesus aside and encouraged consumerism by asking supporters to rate the religiosity of retailers’ sales pitches?

A New York Times editorial titled “This Season’s War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else” summarized the history of Christmas in America, and explained the onset of the “comfort and joy” form of celebration that is now the norm:

Christmas’s self-proclaimed defenders are rewriting the holiday’s history. They claim that the “traditional” American Christmas is under attack by what John Gibson, another Fox anchor, calls “professional atheists” and “Christian haters.” But America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it. What the boycotters are doing is not defending America’s Christmas traditions, but creating a new version of the holiday that fits a political agenda. …

Christmas gained popularity when it was transformed into a domestic celebration, after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s “Visit from St. Nicholas” and Thomas Nast’s Harper’s Weekly drawings, which created the image of a white-bearded Santa who gave gifts to children. The new emphasis lessened religious leaders’ worries that the holiday would be given over to drinking and swearing, but it introduced another concern: commercialism. By the 1920′s, the retail industry had adopted Christmas as its own, sponsoring annual ceremonies to kick off the “Christmas shopping season.”

The commercialization of Christmas is bemoaned every year, but most Christmas celebrants ratify it annually with their wallets or creativity.  Seeing happy anticipation, pleasure and excitement in the faces of family members apparently outweighs the stress of shopping and any concern about watering down the religious underpinnings of the day.  Christians like to please one another on this day.

Hanakkuh

The first day of the Hanukkah is determined according to the Hebrew calendar and so bounces around the Gregorian calendar a bit, but this 8-day Festival of Lights reliably starts in December.  For Jewish families in the USA, this means it is also Christmas season.

I can still remember some (although not all) of the families of my childhood Jewish friends adding a little tree and more significant gift-giving to the Hanukkah tradition.  This was done to help relieve their kids of some of the outsider feelings they experienced in our majority-Christian city – a considerable problem I witnessed many times but that was especially difficult around Christmas when schools held carol-singing assemblies and Christmas parties, and Gentile friends were out shopping and getting excited about the impending xmas loot.  If I were those parents I may well have done the same, but of course like any decision involving religious observance and “stuff”, it would not have been without controversy.  Here’s a good exploration of the question from the Pittsburgh newspaper Post-Gazette, titled “Some want gifts to be less a part of Hanukkah”:

It’s a familiar lament this time of year.

The emphasis on gift-giving and the excesses of merchandising debase the holiday.

Consumerism trumps spiritualism. Shopping supplants praying.

We’re talking about Hanukkah, of course.

The Jewish “Festival of Lights,” set to begin its eight-day run at sundown tonight, has been an occasion for decades to exchange presents, mimicking Christmas.

But while priests and ministers may deplore the commercialism of the Christian holiday, some rabbis see an extra reason to bemoan what’s happened to Hanukkah.

That’s because the Jewish festival celebrates an ancient resistance to the forces of assimilation, while the gift-giving reflects a modern submission to the pull of American culture. …

Both Christians and Jews can identify a religious basis for gift-giving, although the connection of Nintendo games to their spiritual traditions appears tenuous at best. …

When it comes to giving larger gifts, Reform Rabbi Art Donsky, of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, said Jews are not incorporating Christian practices into their Hanukkah celebrations.

Rather, he said, both Christians and Jews are succumbing to this country’s consumerist culture.

“Many of my Christian counterparts in the North Hills feel the same way,” Donsky said. “Christmas isn’t really about giving gifts, either.”

Rabbi Donsky expresses the commonality Jews and Christians share here as succumbing to the country’s consumerist culture.  Really we’re coming to the same conclusion, just emphasizing different steps along the way.  I’d say that people within both groups like to make each other happy during the holidays, and he’d say they’re doing it via consumerist culture.  Yep.

An Afterword on Retailers

The spirit of capitalizing on religious-based observances is also, not surprisingly, universal.  For example, Ferrero, the Italian manufacturer of to-die-for Nutella, markets a Ramadan pack “featuring subtle star and moon motifs”.  The American Cattlemen’s Beef Board & National Cattlemen’s Beef Association offer sage advice on how to “Help Your Customers Find the Right Cuts for Easter and Passover”.

The arrival of spring brings two religious holidays of great significance to your customers. Easter and Passover celebrations both involve ritual symbols and traditional family meals. Many of these celebratory dinners prominently feature beef. This spring, be prepared in the meat case with plenty of favorite beef cuts for both holidays.

The Jewish Post of New York boiled it down to the essentials in “Passover is Big Business”, saying:

Passover is the holiday which celebrates freedom. In 1999, consumers will have much more to celebrate, the freedom to choose from a record number of 18,000 products. Happy choosing.

And here’s an interesting report out of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia titled “Market Blossom In The Holy Month Of Ramadan. Business revive, Brands rejuvenate and Communication reaches its peak”:

From a marketing perspective, those who don’t have ‘insight’ might think that when millions of people around the globe refrain from eating and drinking for an average of 12 hours a day over a month’s period would actually be a harmful thing for business. …

On the contrary the many religious and social traditions associated with this holy month have a tremendous positive impact on local economies, with particular industries registering record revenues during this period; obvious examples include: FMCGs (particularly food and beverage) as a result of households having to prepare ‘iftar’ for their families and friends on regular basis whereas the traditional trend of post-Iftar television viewing means satellite and local channels can charge premium rates on their advertising due to high demand.

Conclusion

Let’s face it – people are people.  Like having eyes and breathing, there are certain universal characteristics we all share that transcend religious doctrine.  Human beings feel pleasure, invite pleasure and like to see our friends and loved ones happy and pleased.  Likewise, we share a common concern over the appropriate degree and timing of our communal indulgences, but in general we don’t allow that concern to supersede the pleasure.