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Why culture-specific holiday gatherings matter: A healing balm for the psyche and soul

Often there are questions about why various cultural groups have their own separate holidays, celebrations, worship centers, and communities. One may ask, “Well, aren’t we all Americans? Why do we have so many culture-based groups? Isn’t that reverse discrimination? Why can’t we just all get along together?” Such questions presume that we are all equally included in the “American” family. But history and our present day realties teach us that the America that we live in today still has a long way to go before it is truly “land of the free” and a place that offers “liberty and justice for all.”

Race, class, and ethnicity still provide a basis for difference in public perceptions, policies, and the actual treatment of “Americans’ who are not considered to be White Anglo-Saxon Protestant of a certain income level. Although most Americans are descendants of immigrants from somewhere, persons who are members of targeted immigrant groups have been labeled “aliens” and have been marginalized, devalued, and treated as outsiders by American society. These cultural groups have had to learn how to create their own free spaces in order to survive and grow in America. “Free Spaces” are places where ethnic groups can come together to recognize and affirm their intrinsic worth as humans and the strength of their shared cultural perspectives, values, and political histories. It is in these cultural spaces that groups who are considered “minority” or “marginalized” create places of self-love, acceptance, and unity that allows them to transform their views of themselves from oppressed people to members of self-determining cultural groups that can work for their own economic and social betterment.

American culture often sends messages that some cultural groups are inferior, less that human (“alien” or “slaves”), or not worthy of American rights or privileges. However, it is in their own sacred cultural spaces that these marginalized groups affirm their own identities and self-worth in the midst of the public policies, media, and images that seeks to devalue them. We only need to look at the current presidential candidates and how some of them have declared that Latinos and Muslims should not be afforded the same citizenship rights as other Americans (i.e. the ability to run for president even when born in the United States).

“When you are living in a society that constantly seeks to rename and reimage you in ways that are not empowering, it is important to create cultural spaces that allow marginalized individuals to reclaim their dignity and to take back the right to name and to create their own images of themselves,” says Dr. Nolan Shaw, Director of the “My Coming of Age” project. “My Coming of Age” is a rites of passage program that seeks to help young men transition into adulthood with a greater sense of self and identity. (http:// Dr. Shaw is also a former senior pastor of West Englewood United Methodist Church in Chicago’s Englewood Community, a predominately low-income African American community.

“When cultural groups are oppressed by racial and ethnic discrimination, it is important that they create cultural spaces and traditions which help them to develop relationships that counter the negative images that they receive from the larger society. Cultural holidays are very important. It is not so much the focus or theme of the holiday, but it is the gathering itself that contributes to our well-being, “says Shaw.

Dr. Shaw says that the culture-based, holiday gatherings renew and revitalize the relationships that the participants have with one another. These are spaces where relationships are established and where there is an exchange of ideas and feelings that positively impacts one’s mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. The group’s shared cultural values, traditions, history, and identity are affirmed.

“The magic of the gathering has transformative power and the ability to impact the human psyche. Holiday celebrations provide an intergenerational space where youth are with older adults who have guided, taught, supported, and encouraged them. These elders remind the youth that that there is another image of who they are that’s different from what they see on television or in the news. We feel the power of the expectations of our elders who want us to do more and better than they have done. When we gather we are really celebrating ourselves,” says Shaw.

But the pressure and expectations of the group can also make the holidays a very challenging time for persons who have fallen upon hard financial times or who feel that their accomplishments have not met up to their family’s expectations. The holiday season is a time when there is a need to be especially sensitive and inclusive of persons who feel left out of even their own cultural groups. It is times like these when churches, fraternities, sororities, and other groups make a special effort to hold community dinners or to support agencies that feed those who are in need and to make everyone feel valued.

As the holidays begin and we prepare our chosen delicacies, let us remember that the real celebration is in the people and the relationships that we make space for at this time of year. The challenge is not to limit our “gatherings” to the holiday season, but for us to find ways to continue the magic of developing nurturing relationships, institutions, and programs that sustain a loving and affirming spirit. We need social spaces which affirm our cultural traditions and differences as well as spaces that allow us to cross-over and to share our cultural identities with one another without valuing one culture more than others.

Let the celebrations begin!

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A joint project of Advocate Health Care & the OCEAN-HP at the University of Illinois at Chicago.