The Catholic liturgical calendar is jam-packed with feast days honoring Christ, his Blessed Mother, the saints, and even famous Christian churches and Christian legends. A Catholic could party almost every day of the year if he wanted to, and that’s not even counting the celebration of secular holidays in his home country (such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving in the United States).
Why is it then that so many Catholics want to know if they can celebrate non-Christian religious holidays?
There are several reasons, I think. If he is a convert from a non-Christian religion, a Catholic may want to know if he can continue to celebrate holidays he grew up with that remain important to his non-Christian family. In some cases, Christianity overlaps with some aspects of a non-Christian religion—most notably, with Judaism—and the Catholic may believe that celebrating the non-Christian religious holiday honors his own Christian heritage.
Other times the Catholic is invited by non-Christians to celebrate their holidays with them, or there’s a public festival in honor of a non-Christian holiday in his community that he’d like to attend. And, of course, occasionally the Catholic is just curious and thinks celebrating a non-Christian holiday will be both educational and fun.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. Whether a Catholic should take part in non-Christian religious holidays, and to what extent he should do so, depends in large part on his individual circumstances. There is one basic principle a Catholic should keep in mind, though: he is a Christian. To the extent that he involves himself in non-Christian religious celebrations, his commitment to his Christian faith must be paramount. With that in mind, let’s look at a couple of the scenarios in which Catholics may find themselves wanting to know if they can participate in non-Christian holidays.
Conversions can be hard on families, especially in cases where a conversion involves leaving a family’s heritage and culture. Conversions can also be hard on converts themselves. It is very difficult to give up special occasions that are part of one’s happiest childhood memories. Even when non-Christians are able to set aside religious beliefs that underpin non-Christian holidays, they may have difficulty giving up the desire to celebrate those special occasions that matter to their families. Christians who don't understand this need only think of what it would be like to give up celebrating Christmas.
In some cases, the Church does not have any theological issues with a particular non-Christian holiday. This is especially true with Judaism. From a Christian point of view, many Jewish holidays—notably Passover—prepared God’s people for the coming Messiah, and the holidays continue to have lasting value for the Jewish people, including for Jews who have converted to Christianity.
For the convert, the main issue is whether participating in the holiday will undermine his commitment to Christianity. If participation in the holiday involves activities that are opposed to Christian doctrine (such as praying to idols, as happens on the Hindu holiday Diwali), then a Christian cannot take part in those activities. Or, if participation in the holiday fosters hope for the convert’s family that he will eventually spurn Christianity, that is another reason to refrain from celebrating the holiday. But if the convert can join together with family and friends on a special occasion that is important to them without compromising his beliefs or commitment to Christianity, then he might do so in the hopes of maintaining family ties and a connection to his heritage.
There’s a lot of talk these days about cultural appropriation. In the West, minority groups of various types have raised concerns about members of a dominant cultural, religious, or racial group sifting through the minority group’s customs and picking out what appeals to them, as if a minority culture were an apple orchard outsiders are free to wander through, selecting the best apples from the trees with no regard to the rights and needs of the orchard owner.
Occasionally, claims of appropriation can seem, at least to members of a majority group, unreasonable. Nonetheless, it is important to be sensitive and respectful of the concerns of non-Christians with regard to their own holidays. No matter how appealing a cultural festival or religious holiday appears to you, if it is not an integral part of your cultural or religious patrimony, you ought to defer to those to whom it does belong how it should be celebrated.
Even Jewish holidays, which are part of Christian salvation history, must be acknowledged to belong first and foremost to Jews. Although the U.S. bishops have noted that Catholic celebration of the Passover seder in Catholic homes and churches “can have educational and spiritual value,” in the same document (God’s Mercy Endures Forever) it advises:
When Christians celebrate this sacred feast [Passover] among themselves, the rites of the haggadah for the seder should be respected in all their integrity. [A haggadah is the order of ritual for a seder, much like a missal is the order of ritual for the Mass.] The seder . . . should be celebrated in a dignified manner and with sensitivity to those to whom the seder truly belongs (28).
There are appropriate ways for Catholics to satisfy their curiosity about non-Christian religious holidays. For example, if Jewish friends invite you to their Passover seder, or if Muslim friends invite you to join them in the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr), ordinarily you may go. Generally speaking, Catholics would not take part in non-Christian religious prayers at these events, but they can observe a respectful silence while others are praying and take part in the feasting and fellowship.
The bottom line
Respectful engagement with non-Christians is a necessary part of life in secular society. Learning more about what non-Christians believe and how they practice their faith can be personally enriching and can have evangelical value as well. Christians need to understand non-Christian beliefs before they can hope to intelligently dialogue with non-Christians about the values we share and the differences that separate us.
Ultimately though, holidays are occasions on which we seek to foster our own relationship with the one true God. And that means that a Christian’s first priority ought to be to celebrate his own holidays and leave to non-Christians the celebration of their holidays.