Celebrating cultural winter traditions in the workplace

Why we should be mindful of other cultural winter traditions to drive inclusion

In case you hadn’t noticed, Christmas is just around the corner. In the UK and elsewhere in the Western world, it is the most widely highlighted cultural celebration in December. Most of us look forward to a few days off work, spending time with friends and family and having some festive treats.

This is all very well, but there are other cultural events happening that don’t get the same public attention. Indeed, many cultures and faiths don’t celebrate Christian traditions at all. They may have their own special days and rituals or choose not to take part in any faith-based celebrations. Here’s a powerful and very personal account of how it can feel to be culturally unacknowledged.

What’s the problem with Christmas at the office?

Celebrating Christmas in the workplace can be fraught with insensitivities. Some HR departments may feel uneasy about putting up Christmas decorations in the office, organising Secret Santa gift exchanges, or Office Christmas Parties for fear of offending non-Christian employees, while other companies may not give this issue a second thought. Unfortunately, there is also a small but vociferous minority who will complain about ‘political correctness gone too far’.

Certainly, it is not the job of the employer to provide religious education of any kind, nor to deny the celebration of cultural practices. On the contrary, in a diverse and open workplace, it is important to recognise and respect everyone’s beliefs, culture and heritage. In a multicultural and multi-ethnic workplace, we surely need to give space to all cultures and traditions if we truly embrace diversity and inclusivity at work. Learning to understand, appreciate and be aware of your team’s traditions and beliefs will encourage everyone to feel valued in the workplace, which, in turn, feeds into a positive company culture.

How can you embrace other festivities?

In comparison to the cultural juggernaut that is Christmas, we rarely hear about Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated for eight days and nights in November/December, or Diwali, a major Festival of Light celebrated in November by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists. Buddhists also celebrate Bodhi Day as the Day of Enlightenment on 8th December. Ramadan and Eid are the holiest Islamic holidays, though they are celebrated during springtime, not in the winter.

A quick look at any online celebration calendar will quickly alert you to festivities across different faiths that are celebrated throughout the year. Get to know your workforce and take the time to learn about cultural traditions observed by your employees. A multicultural calendar will help everyone stay aware of important upcoming events, while specific workshops may encourage everyone to share and take an interest. Promoting an inclusive yet diverse environment sends a clear signal that all voices are welcome and that the company encourages divergent voices. It’s the first step towards a happier, more productive work environment for all.

What support should you offer employees?

While it is important to foster an open dialogue between all team members, resist any temptation to indiscriminately lump groups of people together. Neither is it all about religion. Had you considered that some wheelchair users might actually enjoy a round of crazy golf? Or that some Muslims may enjoy the odd tipple? Or that some team members may simply not want to join in certain activities for reasons they don’t feel comfortable sharing?

Some companies have more work to do on these issues than others. While knowledge sharing and understanding are to be encouraged, counselling support should be made available to any employee who feels they may have suffered from negative stereotyping or bullying because of their cultural background or differences.

HR departments have a responsibility to look beyond day-to-day operations. How can people be encouraged to learn about other faiths? How can cultural differences be recognised and celebrated as part of an overarching strategy going forwards, not just a one-off gimmick? How can next year’s actions in promoting diversity and inclusion be shaped by this year’s successes?

Ideas for celebrating more than Christmas

This time of year is a great opportunity to celebrate with your team, whether it’s Christmas or other holidays and traditions. Food is always a common celebratory element, and it can be an excellent vehicle to introduce and explain different cultural beliefs and religions. Why not invite everyone to bring a festive food dish from their cultural cuisine to start the conservation and peer-to-peer education?

In order to make your Office Christmas Party inclusive, it may be a nice idea to simply rename it to Winter Party or End Of Year Festivities. This then acknowledges the fact that some co-workers may not celebrate the Christian event. If this is your chosen strategy, though, ensure that everyone knows why there’s been a change of name and what you are trying to achieve with a broader, more inclusive remit.

Christmas Parties often revolve around drinking, particularly if the party venue is a pub, cocktail bar or restaurant. Be mindful of the fact that not everyone drinks alcohol. This may be part of their beliefs or a lifestyle choice, so choose your venue on the basis that everyone will feel at ease there.

Ensure that the office party planning process includes an open forum for discussion. There should be the opportunity for everyone to voice what they may or may not be comfortable with and without feeling singled out as a result. Effective team discussions can help make decisions that suit everyone in the team. Finally, Christmas parties don’t have to consist of a sit-down meal followed by a DJ and a bit of dancing. What about varying the format and doing something different like indoor go-karting, an escape room experience or a visit to a spa? Whatever you choose, it is important that decisions are made as a team. Be mindful that different people in the team may have different physical abilities, states of health, cultural belief or just personal preferences.

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