The holiday season has always presented something of a split personality. From Thanksgiving in late November with its emphasis on family and tradition, through the noisy parties of New Year's Eve, the mood and the message are largely festive. At the same time, the season can be a difficult time for those who are sick, alone, or bereaved.
As this article is being written, the autumn leaves are still falling, but signs of the upcoming winter holidays are already appearing in store windows and on our television screens. This holiday season, in the wake of September 11, the conflicting emotions promise to be particularly intense.
AIDS service organizations (ASOs) have always made special efforts at this time of year, sponsoring parties, holiday dinners, and gift giveaways. The activities changed with the changing epidemic and changing times, becoming larger and more elaborate during the 1990s, scaling back as the economy worsened and donors contributed less to HIV-related charities.
In New York, many AIDS organizations are located in the southern part of Manhattan, and services have been disrupted because of the World Trade Center disaster. Those that were closest to "Ground Zero" were closed for varying lengths of time, and many lost telephone and email service. Even now, in mid-October, two major ASOs remain unreachable by phone.
Despite the difficulties, however, AIDS service organizations remain committed to celebrating the holidays with their families of clients, staff, and volunteers. While information is incomplete, Body Positive wants to share with its readers what we were able to find out about holiday plans in New York's HIV community. For more complete and up-to-date information, please call the organizations directly.
Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC)
The holiday celebrations at GMHC have always revolved around the agency's Meals and Recreation Programs. Both these programs have felt the economic pinch over the past few years, both from decreased revenues and increased demand. The regular meals program, for instance, has gone from serving 5,600 meals a month at this time last year to averaging 6,400 a month now.
But GMHC will put on its party hat as usual for this year's Thanksgiving and Winter Holiday observances. Special holiday dinners are planned for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and for mid-December to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. These dinners are very popular, but space is limited to 500 diners and reservations are a must. Each client is allowed to bring one guest, and the guest also must have a reservation.
Thanksgiving dinner will be traditional, turkey and its usual accompaniments. Staff, volunteers, and clients contribute by coming in during the week preceding the dinner to bake pies or make other specialty dishes. The dining room is decorated with holiday themes, and the tables feature centerpieces of autumn flowers and leaves.
The December Holiday Dinner is multicultural. The room is decorated with a Christmas tree, a menorah in honor of Hanukkah, and a kinara (candleholder) and cornucopia for Kwanzaa. The theme is continued in tablecloths of various colors -- red and green for Christmas, blue for Hanukkah. The centerpieces have a harvest theme for Kwanzaa.
GMHC's Child Life program sponsors similar Thanksgiving and December dinners for families with children, plus a gift giveaway for children. The parties are held in a space donated by All Souls Unitarian Church. In past years, Child Life's pantry program has given away turkeys to be prepared at home, but at this writing it is not clear whether they will be able to do so this year.
Rick Isaminger, Manager of GMHC's Meals Program and Learning Center, has been involved with holiday celebrations throughout his eight years at the agency. "The holiday meals atmosphere hasn't changed that much," he says, "because it's a time for getting together with people. It's a happy time for people. I've seen the numbers get bigger. I've seen the demographics change: more people of color, more women. This year we've especially tried to reach out more to women and make it a comfortable area for women."
Momentum AIDS Project
Momentum's program and its holiday observances are designed to reflect the family atmosphere and feeling that exists at the agency, according to Coordinator of Nutrition and Outreach Edwin Krales. "There isn't a sharp line between staff and clients," he says. "We come together to share cultural moments. The closeness provided by Momentum in many cases replaces the formal family structure that many clients have lost because of HIV and AIDS. Some of our clients have lost their entire social support systems to the illness."
Momentum's regular meals program utilizes several sites, mostly churches, around the city. For Thanksgiving, however, the agency holds one major dinner, scheduled for November 20. Traditional Thanksgiving fare is served to 300 to 400 people, and clients can bring family and guests, including children.
A festive Christmas party is planned for late December to be held at one of Momentum's regular sites. It will be a big holiday feast, with traditional foods and decorations.
In addition, Momentum has some other holiday programs in the planning stages:
On December 4, Momentum will be part of the Western Queens HIV Care Network's observance of World AIDS Day. Lunch will be served at St. Mark's Church in Queens, and the program will include an ecumenical service that features client participation.
Because most AIDS service organizations are closed on Christmas Day, and feeling that that is when the need is most acute, Momentum's Coordinator of Harm Reduction and Pastoral Care José Quinones is working with Director of Client Services Spence Halperin to organize a Christmas Day dinner at his church. There is also a possibility that a similar dinner can be arranged for Thanksgiving Day.
Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD)
While most of GMAD's funding is related to HIV and AIDS, the agency is not solely an HIV/AIDS program, and many of its members are HIV negative. The agency was conceived as an advocacy organization aimed at bringing people together and gaining clout in the community. It was founded in the late 1980s as a social service provider, and received its first CDC funding in 1995.
According to Senior Project Coordinator Robert Spellman, "The majority of people who come to GMAD are ostensibly alienated from their natural family and community, so they come to us in a state of isolation. What we try to do is create a sense of community and belonging, because that's fundamental to raising self-esteem. We know that it's very important to make connections during the holidays. We arrange a couple of celebrations, not just one, for the holidays."
GMAD's holiday observances stress participation by its membership. Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations are very festive and prepared primarily by GMAD members. The agency provides the space along with beverages and desserts, but the members cook the turkeys and other holiday fare. GMAD encourages its members to do the traditional things, such as trimming a tree and exchanging gifts. The agency provides gifts and offers members the opportunity to pull names from a pot and exchange gifts.
As an agency that serves an African-American community, GMAD places a special emphasis on Kwanzaa. While its Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations are primarily festive, its Kwanzaa observance is more spiritual. People come and go throughout the entire seven-day period of Kwanzaa, during which the Seven Principles are discussed, the kinara lit, and, on the last day, gifts are given.
"People look forward to it," says Spellman. "The members look forward to preparing the meals. We sort of minimize the emphasis on HIV/AIDS during the holidays, and stress community. We don't act as if it's not important and a consideration, but want to minimize it in the context of community. You're still a person, have needs, relate to others, exchange ideas and feelings. Friends have died from the virus, and this is an opportunity to give, symbolic in many ways."
God's Love We Deliver and Housing Works are two very important AIDS service organizations who were unreachable by telephone for this article.
In years past, God's Love has observed Thanksgiving and Christmas by providing its homebound clients with "guest" meals. Instead of one meal per client, the agency delivers two so that the client can invite a friend over for dinner. The menu, of course, consists of traditional holiday foods.
Housing Works is the prime mover behind New York's World AIDS Day tradition of a 24-hour reading of the names of people who have died from the disease. The ceremony has been held annually in City Hall Park, often to the displeasure of the occupant of City Hall.
The other major winter holiday is the Muslim Ramadan, a thirty-day period of fasting ending in a day or more of feasting. Ramadan is not formally observed by any of the ASOs we spoke to, which have very small numbers of Muslim program participants. According to Wahba Ghaly of Middle East Natives, Testing, Orientation and Referral Services (MENTORS), his is the only HIV/AIDS organization that specifically serves Arab-Americans, including Muslims, and even that agency does not have a formal Ramadan observance for its clients.
Since Ramadan, and the Islamic faith in general, are not very familiar to non-Arab or non-Muslim Americans, Mr. Ghaly generously shared some information.
"Fasting has been an integral part of all major religions," he says. "Jesus Christ fasted for forty days before he was called to prophethood. Similarly Moses fasted for forty days and nights before he was given the law.
"Fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (the other four are the Shahada, or statement of faith; prayers five times a day; Zakat, or paying charity to the poor; and Haj, or making the pilgrimage to Mecca).
"Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Depending on the phases of the moon, it begins eleven or twelve days earlier each year. The reason Muslim believers fast can be found directly in the Revelations of the Qur'an that started in this month, and Qur'an is considered to be a guide to all Muslims.
"Prescribing fasting, the Qur'an says, 'O you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you as it was to those before you, that you may [learn] self-restraint.' The original Arabic word translated here as self-restraint is taqwa, which has a much broader significance. It symbolizes that basic moral quality that demarcates the line between morality and amorality, and distinguishes humans from animals as moral beings."
The feast that ends Ramadan is called Istar and usually lasts about three days. In the Islamic world, many organizations have an open table, because feeding a fasting person is considered thirty times as good as the fasting itself.
Ghaly also points out that people who are sick or traveling a long distance that would make them very tired do not have to fast. Travelers have the obligation to fast an equivalent number of days after Ramadan, but those who are ill, with AIDS or otherwise, are exempt from the obligation to fast.
This year's holiday season will be different for all of us. People in the AIDS community have suffered the same loss and are subject to the same fears as the rest of the city and the nation. At the same time, we are acutely aware that we face an even more difficult time financially, as the funds we so desperately need -- both from the government and from private philanthropies -- are diverted elsewhere. Nevertheless, the holidays are here, and they are important.
GMHC's Isaminger sums it up: "Part of the heart of the city has been taken away, and this gives us a chance to put some of it back. People with HIV and AIDS have dealt with so much change, when you add this on top of it, it's sometimes too much. I'm happy that there's a sense of continuity, that there's always a Thanksgiving dinner and a holiday dinner, so we can offer a sense of continuity."
Laura Engle is a frequent contributor to and former editor of Body Positive.
Back to the December 2001 issue of Body Positive magazine.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.