All the Holy Days

Sarah Richards
December 10, 2017

All the Holy Days

Looking at the December calendar, I see that this Tuesday, December 12, Hanukkah begins at sundown. It will end on the 20th, the day before winter solstice, which is when pagans celebrate Yule. Christmas is just a few days later, and I see that the seven-day observance of Kwanzaa begins on December 26. In the space of two weeks, we have an abundance of Holy Days – all drawing from ancient times and old world places but having widely different dates of origin, each with distinct yet evolving religious, political, and cultural connotations. And as the Elijah’s Angel story pointed out, the meanings and practices of each of these holidays is deeply personal, as they are all experienced in intimate family traditions as well as communally. In my brief contemplation of these December holy days which will be celebrated in homes across Southern Illinois – not to mention throughout the country and around the world – my concern is how we Unitarian Universalists may appreciate their significance for our lives in these dark days of winter.

To review:

A minor Jewish holiday, Hanukkah commemorates both a victory by the outnumbered Maccabees over an occupying army, and the miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight, allowing the eternal flame in the reclaimed temple to continue burning.

The winter solstice is the longest night of the year, and pagans light the Yule log to symbolize and celebrate the return, or rebirth, of the sun.

Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the central figure of the Christian religion.

Kwanzaa is observed over seven days, one for each principle of African American culture celebrated: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.

They don’t sound so compelling when reduced to one-sentence descriptions, huh. It saps them of their wonder, and joy – because these are all joyful holidays, even or especially when observed with serious purpose. Joyful because they commemorate uplifting events or concepts and their celebration is quietly or boisterously uplifting as well, whether celebrated with family members, faith community or in public gatherings. And because they are joyful, they are also holidays of gratitude.

To be clear, they are about distinctly different gratitudes, to God for miracles of triumph and perseverance, gratitude for the sure rhythms of nature, for the birth of the infant Sun God, gratitude for the infant Messiah, gratitude for ancestors’ sacrifices and guidance. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that whether or not we Unitarian Universalists, with our widely diverse theologies and spiritual practices observe any of these upcoming holidays, we are called as people of faith to remember and express our gratitude. To paraphrase Michael’s father, “What this holiday means to you doesn’t have to be what it means to anyone else.” And to paraphrase his mother, “Doesn’t gratitude mean the same thing in every religion?”

Poetry helps to put back the wonder and the joy, as exemplified in Patrick Murfin’s “Miracle of Light”

When the sky has swallowed the sun,

left us in icy darkness
save the brief gray memory of light
escaping from its stifled yawn….

When hope and heat and harvest
have been banished into night,
and dread, despair, and death
grip our forlorn hearts….
Then, just then, a light returns.

Druidic fires on tors and hilltops
call again the sun,
And shyly it comes once more.

The awful gloom of tyranny
Is banished by a zealous few
so that a Temple drop of Maccabean oil
May burn a mystic week.

Some tell of a sudden brilliant star,
a nova in Judean skies,
to mark a coming messenger
of hope and faith and love.

And though the gloom may crowd us still,
the light may lift our hearts
until this spinning, turning ball
carries us around the sun
and brings us again to Spring.[i]

Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, these are all holidays whose stories and rituals involve light – light from oil lamps and candles and stars and flaming logs. Light symbolizes different things in each of these holidays. Hope in God’s miracles, hope for the courage and strength of people to rebuild sacred spaces, hope of the turning seasons, rebirth of the earth, hope in a savior sent from God; hope renewed with every child’s birth, hope in the power of community identity and unity. As with gratitude, I think that finding hope in this season, and acting on it, is a part of who we are as a people of faith.

UU Minister Bruce Marshall wrote a meditation called “A Complicated Christmas” which is nevertheless apropos for all the Holy Days of the season. He says,

“I wish you a season in which there is room for the complexities that occur during this time. A season of complicated memories, of happiness and pain, of comfort and loss, of disappointment and fulfillment….

A season of joy that also has room for sadness, because gladness and sorrow take place together. A season of busyness that also grants us time to pause [that is another common purpose for all of the Holy Days of the season]. A season of bustling that also allows time for quiet. A season of celebrations that also encourages time for reflection….

A season of light that brings us to see more intensely the shadows of our lives. A season of hope that underscores how far we still must travel to realize these dreams.”[ii]

Friends, as we move through this Holy Day season, may we observe, appreciate and celebrate our connections of joy, wonder, gratitude, and hope.

[i] Murfin, Patrick. “Miracle of Light” in We Build Temples in the Heart. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2004, pp. 52-3.

[ii] Marshall, Bruce. “A Complicated Christmas” in Taking Pictures of God. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996, p. 38.