It has long been true that Christmas is not just for Christians any more. Many people, of many different religious persuasions or of no persuasion at all, celebrate the day and the season. Followers of Buddhism in the Washington area are among the groups celebrating the tradition.
Like many people in the United States this time of year, Wilson Hurley has put up a Christmas tree in his house. But his Christmas tree sits in front of an image of Buddha. The front of his house has an ordinary Christmas wreath as well, but the Buddhist prayer flags in his back yard are a more unusual sight. "The tradition is that the flags are hung outside with the prayer and any beneficial aspiration, and then get blown in the wind and to all beings," he said.
Hurley grew up in a traditional Christian family, but as an adult chose Tibetan Buddhism as his religion. "Yes, you will not see this in most American households," he said.
Hurley has been a Buddhist for more than 30 years. Recently he has helped spread Buddhist ideas and practice by holding meditation classes. He believes Buddhists can celebrate Christmas just like anyone else. "In my mind, the true celebration of Christmas is to go deeper into one's heart to try to root out pettiness and selfishness and anger and hatred and intolerance and try to make a more loving heart, a more compassionate heart," he said.
A survey several years ago showed that Buddhism has become the fourth-largest religion in the United States, with 1.5 million adherents.
"You wouldn't know it from our classes here. We have very small classes," Hurley said.
About 20 percent of American Buddhists are white. The vast majority of the others are immigrants from Asia. U Aye Than immigrated to the United States from Burma nearly 30 years ago. He is a devout Buddhist - and also celebrates Christmas, at least some of the practices associated with it. "We do celebrate Christmas. Not like going to church or anything, but we do celebrate. We bring friends and relatives to get together and give the gifts to the kids and everything," he said.
More than 80 percent of Burmese immigrants to the United States are Buddhist. There are a sizeable number of Christians, too. Than believes there are many similarities between followers of Buddha and followers of Jesus. He says he agrees with the vast majority of Christian doctrine.
"Most of the teaching, about 75 to 80 percent, I agree with. So the only difference is that we believe in cause and effect, nothing happens by itself. They believe that God creates everything. We believe that nobody can do anything to us. We ourselves did good and bad things for ourselves," he said.
Burmese-Americans singing Christmas songs
In this temple, located in a suburb of Washington, D.C., the majority of worshipers are from Burma or are related to a Burmese. Aree Manosuthikit is from Thailand and is studying for her PhD. in linguistics. Her husband is Burmese, and both of them are Buddhists.
In addition to worshipping at the temple her husband frequents, Aree also goes to the local Thai temple. Pramaha "Andrew" Puton is a monk at the temple. He says the monks have a very positive view of Christmas. "In this country they have holiday, right? If they are Buddhists, so they have holiday and also they could come to the temple on that day. So it is good to have holiday," He said.
Thailand's ambassador to the United States, Don Pramudwinai, is a Buddhist, but he and his family observe some Christmas traditions. "We just have our simple dinner normally during Christmas time. Of course, we exchange gifts as well during the occasion with friends. And obviously we all send out Christmas cards and New Year's cards at the same time," he said.
These immigrants consider themselves a part of American society. They say they want to integrate into the mainstream culture of the United States. Interracial and inter-religious marriages are not unusual among them. "As Buddhists, we are open-minded. We don't mind if you are Buddhist, Islam or Christian. If their husbands are Christians, and it's an important day for Christians, they should go to celebrate with them," he said.
While Buddhists may not celebrate all the Christmas rituals, they believe they can join with Christians and others in hoping for peace and joy to the world, at Christmas and all the year round.