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Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Is Christmas any less Christian if you put up a Bodhi Day tree?


One of my daughter’s Jewish friends from preschool once said that she liked coming to our house this time of year because we were the only other people who did not have a Christmas tree, either. Her mother described the conflict her child felt at school having to do Christmas-themed art projects such as decorating trees, which, regardless of what you call them, are still Christmas trees. Even a five-year-old could see this. Is Christmas any less Christian if you put up a Bodhi Day tree?

It felt good to know that she found comfort in our home, although I had to confess that the real reason we did not have a Christmas tree at that time was that we used to always travel over the holidays. I was raised Catholic. We do celebrate Christmas. However, we did it reflexively.

So then I nearly scared my children to death with the pronouncement, “Now that we’re Buddhist, maybe we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas anymore.”

You can imagine their response, “NOOOOO!!!!”

Curious, we did some research and discovered that some Buddhists put up Bodhi Day trees on December 8 to celebrate the day of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment. Bodhi Day trees are ficus religiosa trees (or an evergreen in a pinch) decorated to represent the Jewel Trees in the Pure Land, which are encrusted in precious gems, fruit, and flowers. Bodhi Day trees are wrapped with multicolored lights to represent enlightenment, strung with beads to symbolize the way all things are connected, and hung with shiny ornaments to represent the three jewels of Buddhism–the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The star on top represents the morning star to mark the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Candles are lit and presents are exchanged.

It looks suspiciously like a Christmas tree.

Still, the discussion did open up doors for us to think more deeply and deliberately about Christmas, Buddhism, and what we wanted to create together for our family traditions. Both Christmas and Buddhism have become more meaningful to us because of this conversation. The kids sometime joke about our Bodhi Day tree, but we all know ours is an unabashed Christmas tree with Buddhist ornaments.

Lucky for us, Christmas is not philosophically incompatible with Buddhism (as it is philosophically incompatible with Judaism, Islam and the Jehovaha’s Witness faith). I do not envy those families trying to make their way through the Christmas season with both children and integrity intact.

In a very thoughtful and insightful article, second-generation Muslim Palestinian American writer, Hadeel Masseoud, wrestles with whether to put up a Christmas tree for her preschool-aged son, “A Very Muslim Christmas: Would having a tree betray our faith?” My favorite passage:

I mentioned these childhood memories of Christmas once to my former law school classmate, Eric, who grew up Jewish in Connecticut. After I described how we used to celebrate Christmas like any other Christian family up until I was 12, he looked at me in shock and said, “What? You used to celebrate Christmas? I am a bad Jew and even we never celebrated Christmas!” I felt a bit ashamed that a Jew who enjoyed pepperoni pizza was chiding me for putting up a Christmas tree as a kid.

In “Baha’i gift-giving season follows different cycle,” Baha’i writer Ellen Price flips the perspective around and shows how a Christian friend saves “Christmas gifts” until the appropriate Baha’i gift-giving season. What a great idea.

Sometimes people are defensive about being able to celebrate Christmas without having to worry about the feelings of others, but I find that the more I learn about why other religions do what they do, the more meaningful my own choices become.

© 2010 – 2011, Frances Kai-Hwa Wang. All rights reserved.

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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog, Chicago is the World, JACL's Pacific Citizen, InCultureParent and Multicultural Familia. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at She can be reached at

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