Other religions have celebrated holidays in isolation. Some ask: Why make an exception for Christmas?

Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Ramadan — some of most celebrated holidays for cultural communities in Quebec have been observed in alternative ways this year. 

Cases have hit 'high plateau' in this 2nd wave, Quebec Premier François Legault has said

Premier François Legault announced Quebecers will be able to gather over a period of four days during Christmastime. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Eid — some of the most celebrated holidays for cultural communities in Quebec have been observed in alternative ways this year in order to follow public health guidelines. 

So, as cases hit what Premier François Legault himself called a "high plateau" in the second wave of the pandemic, some are asking why, in a secular state, make the exception for Christmas?

Legault and Quebec public health officials announced Thursday evening they would be allowing Quebecers to gather in groups of up to 10 over four days during the Christmas period, from Dec. 24 through to Dec. 27.

They asked that those doing so voluntarily isolate for seven days prior and seven days afterward before heading back to work and school.

"What we've learned in the Jewish community over these months is, 'Listen, it's not the same but it's possible to connect with one another while keeping each other safe. It's possible to kind of hold on to the heart and soul of a holiday even if you observe it in a totally different way,'" said Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom.

Grushcow points out that many are noticing how the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, wasn't taken into account in the government's exception to public health guidelines.

But she also says Jewish communities have already had to celebrate some of their most important holidays virtually. 

She says her biggest concern is what this could mean for cases in Quebec, as vaccines may be around the corner and health experts have been pleading for people not to gather. 

"This is the home stretch.… There seem to be no health indicators, no scientific or medical indicators, that say that this is a good idea," Grushcow said. 

Public health experts said Friday the dates for gathering were selected based on the school break, not on any particular religion.

But on Thursday, Legault said he and health experts figured it would please the majority.

"I know some people, they prefer to celebrate the New Year than celebrating Christmas. But we said that we think, in Quebec, most of the people would be happy with those four days," the premier explained.

Shaheen Junaid Ashraf, a board member of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women, said Muslims, too, celebrated Eid at a distance. 

"We cooked and we went and delivered to the doors to our children," Junaid Ashraf said. "They wore masks and they came out and I stretched my hand from the car, and they stretched their hands from the doorway."

Junaid Ashraf also referred to the number of new cases in the province, which has been hovering above 1,200 daily. 

"The casualties and the cases keep rising. They're not going down yet. They're not even stabilizing. So, what's this big deal about gathering at Christmas? Why? And, why this preferential treatment for one religious group?"

Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation says he hopes the Quebec government will allow a similar period for Jewish families and friends during Hanukkah.

"I think equity and common sense would demand a similar indulgence of observances over Hanukkah, which is coming up in the middle of December. Or if, God forbid, the pandemic continues to the spring holidays, that similar licence would be given," Poupko said.

Shaheen Ashraf, board member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, questions the government's decision when cases remain high in the province. (CBC)

"Every religious community in Quebec should be treated fairly and equally and the holidays of one community should not be prioritized over the holidays of another," he added. 

For her part, Grushcow, said one other thing about Thursday's decision irked her. The provincial government has been defending itself against a constitutional challenge to its secularism law, known as Bill 21, in Quebec Superior Court. 

"I just don't know how the government is holding this line, saying, 'We are a province that values secularism above all else,' and is then reorganizing and negatively impacting the school year so people can observe Christmas," Grushcow said.

"But God forbid you be a teacher with a hijab or a kippa."


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