With snow-covered trees and advertisements for holiday festivities, Seton Hill University (SHU) students are preparing for the Christmas season. As a private Catholic liberal arts university, it comes as no surprise that SHU’s Christmas spirit flows freely through the campus. Lowe dining hall features seasonal greenery and dorm rooms don wreaths and Christmas lights. For any practicing Catholic, these changes also mean the approach of Advent, a time of prayer and reflection.
Of course, not all the students that attend SHU practice Catholicism or celebrate Christmas. The university prides itself on welcoming a diverse collaboration of all denominations of religious belief.
“Seton Hill has a tradition of being very friendly and accepting of others, accepting of diversity. I think it’s a part of who we are and I do believe that to be a Catholic college is to be accepting of diversity. A part of our welcoming nature comes from really listening to and understanding the people that think and act differently than us,” said Sister Maureen O’Brien, director of campus ministry.
“Another part of what makes SHU so unique is the continuation of traditions, while plying them to meet a different type of student….as we grow and expand and develop, we have to maintain the traditions, but express them in new ways or express them in ways that are attractive to all of our students, even those of other religious persuasions,” O’Brien added.
As other cultures and religious affiliations are embraced, most students appear to have no problem adopting a positive, even enthusiastic, approach to the traditionally religious holiday.
“Christmas is my favorite time of year. I don’t celebrate the background, but I like feeling great and watching the movies, singing the songs, drinking the cocoa, making the cookies, putting up the decorations, looking at the lights, giving presents, getting presents and all the festivities associated with Christmas. You just wake up and there’s snow and you just feel like you’re constantly getting a hug. Christmas just tends to bring out the best in people. You don’t have to be a Catholic to feel wonderful during Christmas,” said Rachel Goller, freshman psychology major and affiliated atheist.
Annalisa Perumal, freshman forensic science major, shared similar sentiments. She was raised in an Indian household that celebrated a belief that involved both Christianity and Hinduism.
“Even though Christianity is the belief in one God and in Hinduism we have many, many gods, they coincide really well with each other in some places…During the winter season, Christianity celebrates Christmas and in Hinduism we have Diwali in November. It marks the beginning of winter and involves a festival of lights. On that day, we devote ourselves to one of our gods,” Perumal said, “I like knowing both sides and learning how to combine them into one belief for myself.”
Divides not only exist between Christian and non-Christian groups, but there are also distinct differences in the celebration of Christmas by various denominations of Christianity and Catholicism.
“Presbyterianism and Catholicism are pretty different, so as Christmas comes along, I’m starting to note some pretty significant changes in the way things are done, but SHU has never made me feel weird or unwelcomed in any way. I see the core of my beliefs here and that’s really the most important thing. We can share that and it’s enough for Christmas,” said Heather Long, freshman education major and Presbyterian.
Students of various religions were quick to dispel any indication of disapproval of SHU’s emphasis on Christmas.
“I think the fact that SHU gets into Christmas is great. I like it because they aren’t forcing me to go to mass; they’re just decorating and stuff. This is a Catholic university, so how could anyone-myself included-get offended by them putting an emphasis on the religion that the school affiliates with?” said Goller.
“I used to go to a Catholic school in preschool and a few years of elementary school. Coming to Seton Hill was a reminder of my past. I think Catholic school instilled a lot of values in me. I’m well disciplined and hard working. Maybe I don’t associate with all the same beliefs and traditions, but I respect Catholic schools for teaching me those values and I respect the tradition of Christmas,” Perumal said.
O’Brien wished to remind students that campus ministry is not just an organization for the Catholic students; it is a mechanism of service that should be utilized by all.
“We’re very much in dialogue with other religious beliefs, as you could tell just looking at our staff. Dr. David VonSchlicten is a Lutheran minister and Marilyn Fox Lewis is an African American Baptist, among other very different groups. Our peer minister group is very diverse as well. So I think our staff does really reflect our commitment to serve the needs of all of our students and to help to develop spiritually; we’re here for everybody…it’s important to have people who will welcome and understand you, especially during the Christmas season,” O’Brien said.
Generally, SHU’s Christmas spirit appears vastly unhindered by students of conflicting religions. In fact, students of different denominations seem to fully embrace and enjoy the joyous holiday, promoting a season-appropriate sense of peace and unity.
“We are family. And family members are all different. But the important thing is that we come together and we respect each other and celebrate each other. And I think that Christmas is the time of year where we really do celebrate one another,” said O’Brien.
Different Religions, Different Traditions
Affiliated Group: Christianity
Purpose: celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ
Date: December 25
Traditions: Modern celebrations of Christmas around the world have mixed secular and religious themes and origins. Popular customs associated include caroling, church celebrations, gift giving, family dinners, dessert making and elaborate displays of decorations that include strands of lights, garland, mistletoe and Christmas trees adorned with ornaments. Santa Claus/ St. Nicholas is the icon associated with bringing toys to children on Christmas Eve. Traditions have wide varia- tion based on religion and secular incorporation.
Affiliated Group: Judaism
Purpose: commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in second century BCE
Date: eight days starting on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, putting the celebration between late November and late December
Traditions: Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting candles on a can- delabrum called a menorah with each passing night. Special songs are sung and fried foods such as latkes and sufganlyot are eaten. Children play a game with a four-sided spinning top called a dreidel and are given small gifts or money.
Affiliated Group: rooted in Catholicism, but cel- ebrated by many branches of Christian Latinos
Purpose: reenacts Joseph’s search for a room at an inn before the birth of Christ in the manger
Date: December 16—December 24
Traditions: During the nine day celebration, proces- sions move from house to house with a candle inside
a paper bag. At each home, they stop to pray with the family. The procession typically ends at a home or a church where the Christmas Eve celebration begins with extensive feasting, caroling and piñatas.
Affiliated Group: Hinduism
Purpose: celebrates both the attainment of nirvana by Mahavira (an Indian sage) and the anniversary of the death of Swani Dayanand (Hindu religious leader)
Date: based on the Hindu calendar, falls between mid-October and mid-November
Traditions: Also called the Festival of Lights, in- volves decorating the home with lights and candles to mark the start of winter. There are also firework shows. Like many other winter holidays, sweets and gifts re distributed amongst children and time is spent with families.
What’s your favorite religious winter tradition?
“We go to temple on sundown of Hannukah, the Sunday after Thanksgiving this year. There are some interesting services and we eat really different foods. I help in lighting the menorah. I also help my dad make latkes. That’s always kind of fun.”
-Jess Buchman, freshman computer science major and Jewish
“I spend a lot of quality time with my mom. Every year, we hang out together and watch the Grinch with lit candles everywhere.”
-Jared Bogolea, freshman hospitality and tourism management major and non-religious
“We break an Oplatek as a Polish custom. It’s a thin, wafer type of bread that is supposed to remind us of the host at mass. We pass it around as we pray, so everyone has a piece before we start eating.”
-Emily Hassey, freshman dietetics major and Catholic
“At Christmas, we eat garlic and bread and honey. We don’t eat meat on Christmas. It’s a little different. Our religion sticks strictly to eating seafood. And putting garlic in just about everything.”
-Breanna Powers, freshman history education major and Ukrainian Catholic
“First, our family has a long discussion on what cookies we want to make. I always say peanut butter balls because they’re my favorite. We make about a hundred, because they don’t last very long!”
-Shannon Zidack, freshman forensic science major and atheist
“My family always has the morning of Christmas, we read the navity story. Somebody each year gets to pull out the little baby Jesus and put in in our little glass manager. We also eat enchiladas. I think that’s because we’re from Texas. New Years is a big deal in my family too with a lot of Polish tradition. Black-eyed peas are for good luck. Cabbage is for a fortunate new year. Red underwear is for romance in the upcoming year. Then we eat 12 grapes, one for each month of the year.”
-Emily Frost, freshman art therapy major and Catholic
“My favorite tradition here at SHU is probably the Crib ceremony. What I like to see is that in August the freshmen come and they try to bond, but they really present themselves within the Crib ceremony, participating in all the different areas of service. It’s just very beautiful.”
-Sr. Maureen O’Brien, director of campus ministry