Dialogue on Campus: Happy Christmahanukwanzadan


Morgan Vega-Gomez, Administrative Assistant of Career Services and Academic Citizenship at Bridgewater College, Virginia
December 15, 2015


Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Joyous Kwanzaa. Ramadan Mubarak. The holiday season is filled with many diverse, religious celebrations. Which begs the important question fraught with self-doubt and the possibility of offense: which greetings should you use? Or do I avoid the topic all together?

The Bridgewater College Dialogue Club decided to host a dialogue on that very topic last November. The club's goal is to encourage students to reach across divides and differences – cultural, religious, gender, generational, political, and other types of differences in identity, beliefs or values. The club invited students, faculty, and staff to discuss “Christmahanukwanzadan,” a term coined to include four major traditions. “We wanted to have an inclusive religious dialogue,” said Abby Muth, a junior.

“Everybody shared stories about the intent they have when wishing someone a ‘Happy Holiday,’” said Betsy Hayes, the Division Head of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor advisor for the club.

“We were trying to help create an environment in which people could try out their opinions about diversity and how to deal with it,” explained Jamie Frueh, Director of the Center for Engaged Learning (and professor advisor of the club).

The dialogue was facilitated by Bridgewater alum Laura Reynolds using the reflective structured dialogue approach taught by Public Conversations Project. The method of facilitating constructive communication hinges on promoting connection and curiosity in the midst of differences – in both opinion and identity.

With this style of dialogue, agreements for the conversation were discussed up front. A time frame (one minute to reflect and two to respond) set boundaries and provided time for participants to reflect on the questions and process one another’s responses.

“I think the process allows people to both speak and listen. There are times set aside for both of those things,” Frueh said.

The group addressed the following questions through dialogue:

1. Please share a story about what the winter holidays mean to you, or share a story about the traditions you celebrate during the winter season.

2. What do you hope to communicate when you express good wishes and what do you hear when someone expresses good wishes to you?

3. What kind of values and sentiments are appropriate for public space during the winter season, and what remains complicated for you?

The attendees, including students, staff and faculty, shared their own experiences and traditions during the holiday season. “It was a cozy atmosphere,” Celeste Corbman, a senior English major and club cabinet member, said. “Probably because we were drinking hot chocolate and talking about the holidays. Other dialogues [we’ve done] didn’t have that atmosphere.”

Members of the club were concerned that the dialogue was not diverse, as all the participants celebrated Christmas. “Everybody in the room was a Christian,” Hayes said.

While “the range of diversity wasn’t wide, there was a diversity of opinions,” Jamie Frueh said. “I, myself, was surprised at the diversity of opinions on things. My biggest assumption is that the world agrees with me until [I’m] presented with those who don’t.”

“I went in a little skeptical if we were all from the same, broad background,” Hayes said, “but we learned from each other despite our similarity.” The dialogue allowed club members and Bridgewater College community members to share openly and connect, even when faced with differences of opinions. “It brought everyone together,” Corbman said. “The structure worked out, and people had something to say...People were very motivated to talk about the topic.”

“We want students on campus to experience talking together about different, controversial issues. We think it’s an important skill for citizens of a democracy...to state their opinions even if they disagree with the society at large. If they don’t do that well, it creates more problems,” Jamie Frueh said. “[They’re] practicing skills they can use anywhere in civil society.” He continued, “It was educational for me, even as a professor that teaches about diversity. People were honest. You can’t ask for more than that.”