Some of you have attended our recent “Unplug the Christmas Machine” adult RE classes, and I am reminded just how much pressure and challenge the holiday season can hold for us. In ancient times, before the invention of the internet, shopping malls, and credit cards, holidays tended to have a much more ‘holy day’ kind of focus than our modern celebrations. But for contemporary Unitarian Universalists, even the more religious version of the November and December season can be off-putting. If you’re not a Christian or devout Jew, how do you put “holiness” in the holidays?
I tend to think of the holiday season as a time to focus on things that are more sacred, transcendent and perhaps ephemeral than what usually holds my attention. Rather than thinking about the drudgery of day-to-day life, these times encourage us to think about things like beauty, family connections, generosity, and mystery. In both the Christian tradition, which is focused on Christmas, and the Jewish tradition, which celebrates
Hannukah, we are encouraged at this time to immerse ourselves in a sense of the miraculous. For Christians, the miraculous virgin birth of the child Jesus represents a new birth of spirit and hope. For Jews, Hannukah tells the story of the miraculous burning of oil lamps in the reclaimed holy temple, when the oil should have run out. In both of these traditions, there is a great deal of hope, faith, and wonder that arises from the telling of these stories. For earth-based peoples, these same emotions are generated by looking towards the return of the sun, which begins its journey back towards the northern hemisphere on the day of the Winter Solstice.
So, regardless of which traditions you do or do not celebrate, and regardless of which stories you see as sacred, we can embrace more transcendent values at this time of year. It is a time to focus on that which brings light in the darkness, on what gives us hope, and on what new possibilities might be born in the coming year. But, too often, we forget these deeper values in the crazy rush of gift-giving, party-throwing, and interacting with extended families. It’s easy to forget that gifts are meant to represent the spirit of generosity, not prove the depth of our wallets. We confuse elaborate party-planning with sincere enjoyment of being with the people we care about. And we falsely believe that we have to act as if things are perfect in our lives, rather than considering that this a time to lean into one another in the face of darkness.
So how do we bring the “holy” back into the holidays? By shifting our attention away from “what” and onto “how.” By focusing not on how many gifts we can give, or parties we can attend, but on the depth of heart, hope and spirit we can find. Sometimes, these deeper values are found not in doing, but rather in simply being—which is what the shortening days, the cooling weather, and the natural quietness of nature in winter invite us to do. I hope that in the coming weeks, you can create time to simply be, to put aside your to-do list, and simply sit quietly alone or with loved ones, and enjoy the miracle of your own presence.
In faith and fellowship,