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Posted on Thu, Dec 24, 2009 : 6 a.m.

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

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Tried and true glue and glitter techniques work on Bodhi Day Tree ornaments, too--a glittering bodhi leaf with lights.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang | Contributor

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 5-year-old could see this.

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 Dec. 9 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 Jehovah’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.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at


Heidi Hess Saxton

Mon, Jan 25, 2010 : 11:53 a.m.

Frances: This is the post I was referring to in my e-mail to you previously. I'm curious... how do you see Buddhism to be "not philosophically incompatible" with Christianity, given that (like Judaism and Islam) it is a monotheistic faith?

Anonymous Due to Bigotry

Sun, Dec 27, 2009 : 3:49 a.m.

Actually Christianity is not compatible with Buddhism. The main point of disagreement would be that god is not omnipotent or eternal. To believe such would be considered Wrong View in Buddhism. It's true that god could exist as a being, and even a near omnipotent godlike being, but he couldn't be eternal or omnipotent. He might think he is omnipotent and eternal, but that would be proof of his lack of enlightenment since belief in either would be considered delusion which one must be free of in order to be enlightened. Then again, Pure Land Buddhism is totally inconsistent with every other form of Buddhism since it claims that Amithaba can affect ones enlightenment or rebirth which is inconsistent with all of the historical evidence that says that beings can only be enlightened or reborn in a certain place by another. No being can just make another enlightened. See the dhammapada. Then again, beliefs such as the omnipotence or eternal nature of a god are considered "views", attachment to which are only abandoned after attachment to rituals such as setting up a tree. (Note that one can perform rituals without being "attached" to them, where attachment might be considered the feeling that rituals are critical rather than symbolic performances of social segnificance.)

Danny Haszard

Sat, Dec 26, 2009 : 9:57 a.m.

Jehovah's Witnesses reject all holidays even benign Mother's day,exception being the Lord's evening meal also called the Last Supper or Good Friday. WHY-Jehovahs Witnesses dont do Thanksgiving,and other holidays. I was born Jehovahs Witness 1957 3rd generation,we didnt celebrate Christmas. The reason JWs dont do Christmas is because their Watchtower leaders say so,the holiday has pagan aspects to it and by rejecting it the Watchtower appears pure. This demand for purity is one of the 8 marks of a cult.NOW the Watchtower can use this purity diversion to distract from their own false dogmas. The Watchtower leaders want us to be 'different' for the sake of being different.Jehovah's Witnesses are not 'happier' and are just as dysfunctional as families who do holidays. Jesus was not born on Dec 25th,but he also did not have his second coming in the month of October 1914,which is the core doctrine of the Watchtower religion. -- Danny Haszard

Michael K.

Thu, Dec 24, 2009 : 6:14 p.m.

From National Geographic: "Ancient Irish Tomb Big Draw at Winter Solstice".... The 62-foot-long (19-meter-long) passage faces the winter solstice sunrise. A little window above the door allows light from the rising solstice sun to reach the depths of the burial chamber from about 8:58 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. local time.

Michael K.

Thu, Dec 24, 2009 : 6:10 p.m.

As Buddhists, we choose to mark the Winter Solstice as our primary holiday/new year celebration, along with Christmas (which we celebrate with our Christian relatives.) The solstice celebration pre-dates the Christmas celebration by many centuries. One Celtic "passage tomb", which receives light in the interior of the tomb only on the days of the winter solstice, dates to 3200 bc. Many elements the Celtic solstice celebration were incorporated into Christmas celebrations as that religion spread. While I hated the pomp and circumstance of many social events while growing up, ritual is an important way to communicate a shared, core experience of what it means to be human to the next generation. We celebrate the return of the light, the new year, and give thanks that we are still here for another year, while many are not....