Holidays No Longer Just about Christmas

Article excerpt

As Americans gathered for the holidays this year, it wasn't always clear which one they were celebrating.

Take the family in Dublin, Ohio, which hung holiday lights in early November. Neighbors thought family members were eager for yuletide cheer. In fact, they were marking the Nov. 11 birthday of Siri Guru Nanak Sahib, the first teacher of the Sikh faith.

In Philadelphia this week, the day after most children had ripped open their Christmas presents, two local museums began their celebrations: the National Museum of American Jewish History in recognition of Hanukkah and the African-American Museum in honor of Kwanzaa.

No doubt about it. From the Jewish high holy days in the fall to the lighting up of the Empire State Building next month for Asian Lunar New Year, America's holiday celebrations are multiplying faster than college bowl games. It's a trend that reflects America's increasing diversity, as well as the mounting cultural confidence of its minorities.

In a country founded on religious tolerance, many see the diversity of worship as a testament to America's ability to accept and support widely differing faiths. Yet others see it as a challenge, not only to the nation's Judeo-Christian heritage, but to companies and colleges trying to keep up with the traditions of dozens of different systems of worship.

"Companies need to adapt to a much more religiously and ethnically diverse workforce," says John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an outplacement firm based in Chicago. "The most competitive companies need to attract talent wherever that may be. So putting together programs that honor those people they have ... is common sense."

Change at warp speed

In demographic terms, the shift is taking place with stunning speed. As late as 1970, the nation's foreign-born population stood at a record low: 4.7 percent. By 1997, that percentage had risen to 9.7 percent - not equal to the levels of a century ago, when immigrants flooded American shores - but a substantial rise, thanks to immigration.

When the US Census Bureau releases its latest figures in the next couple weeks, the percentage is likely to rise even higher.

Organizations are already feeling the forces of change, especially around holidays. In 1997, more than two-thirds of firms surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management offered flexible schedules for religious observances.

Some companies have gone even further, though. Computer- chipmaker Intel Corp. holds multicultural celebrations once or twice a year at each of its US sites. …