ST. LOUIS — 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. Employees of different ethnic backgrounds share food, dances, and other aspects of their culture.
"As a global corporation, you balance the consistency of what the company culture is with what the cultures are themselves," says Howard High, a company spokesman.
In La Vergne, Tenn., Whirlpool hired so many Muslim employees at its manufacturing plant that it instituted religious sensitivity training. It also changed the menu in its cafeteria and dealt with the ticklish issue of Muslim women wanting to wear head scarves on the factory floor - a safety risk.
"It is a manufacturing environment, so there are limits to what you can do," says Christopher Wyse, director of North American communications. But "we place very high regard on diversity in the company."
And ethnic accommodation extends beyond companies. The University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., celebrates its diversity with multicultural events and sports a calendar on its Web site, listing various holiday events from the Buddhist and Hindu tradition of Bodhi Day to the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan and the Mexican festival of Las Posadas.
Moreover, the increasing diversity doesn't just present challenges, but also opportunities.
Firms such as Mixed-Blessing in Raleigh, N.C., offer various multicultural and interfaith holiday cards through outlets including Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's, and Borders Books and Music. And the local Wal-Mart in Apache Junction, Ariz., for the first time stocked up on Christmas items specifically targeted at blacks and Latinos - due to increasing demand.
"For the 21st century, if you want to attract the different diverse communities, you have to package yourself for that community," says Carlos Conejo, president of Multicultural Associates, a consulting firm in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Slowly but surely
It's not clear US institutions would have been quite so accommodating without some help. A provision of the Civil Rights Act requires companies to make reasonable accommodations for employees religious practices, unless they cause undue hardship.
"Increasing the number of holidays and the number of compromises ... creates tension, and that creates a backlash ... at times," says Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. But "the United States at its core has a much greater tolerance and respect for religious and ethnic diversity than other countries.... That's the uniqueness of the American experience."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society