Holy Holidays: HuffPost Religion Readers Share Sacred Stories
Editor's Note: This year we reached out to HuffPost Religion Users to tells us your stories of what experiences that made the Holidays holy. They range for heart breaking to heart warming and reminded us that the reason for the season is family, friends, fun and faith. We hope these stories bring you joy.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Peaceful Solstice to you all from your friends at HuffPost Religion
Click On A Title To Jump To That Story
Kathleen Hidreth -- A Christian Toddler Narrates a Hanukkah Tradition
Ana Josephs -- How I Found Christ in Christmas
Elizabeth Bastos -- A Christmas Story
Gayle Ashbach -- The Holy Season
Nandini Pandya -- Merry Christmas From a Hindu
Mark Pfeifer -- On Christmas Eve, Homeless at the Hyatt
Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis --Little Holies
Keith --Darkest Before the Dawn
Sister Rebecca Mead, OSB, SPP -- Through the Eyes of a Child
David Currier -- Christmas in Mexico
Frenika Mudd -- My Holy Holiday Story
Nichelle Wrenn --An Atheist Thanksgiving and Christmas
Frankie Trice --Yule: A Pagan Feast
Melinda L. Wentzel -- The Warm Fuzzies
Michael L. Ruffin -- The Christmas Play
Harsha Sharma -- How the Story of Hanukkah Inspires me in Interfaith Social Action
Our family celebrates Christmas with much fanfare. We went to the children's service on Christmas Eve and Christmas caroling in the town square afterward. I would say all three of my girls had wonderful, family memories of this wondrous holiday. As I was brought up Catholic and my husband in the Church of England, neither of us knew a thing about Hannukah beyond something about oil burning for eight days. My girls went to a public school where, thankfully, traditions were shared. They learned all about this sweet holiday and the pertinent celebrations which they understood to be part of the December fun. One day, my kindergartener got off the bus while gingerly carrying a paper plate covered with tinfoil. She proceeded to sit at the table and assemble a concoction which included half a hot dog bun smeared with peanut butter via a popsicle stick. Eight little pretzel sticks were crowned with eight tiny marshmallows which were then added to the bun in a row. After then consuming it with great gusto she proclaimed to me, "Mom, that was the best menorah I ever ate."
For months I have been anticipating my first Christmas as a married woman. I couldn't wait to get a tree, decorate our little apartment, and watch many a Christmas movie. This would be the first year of many traditions! So far, the Christmas tree consists of an eight inch stuffed piece of felt on a pole from the Dollar Store I bought last year. I have watched one Christmas movie, Christmas Vacation, and my only real decoration fell down after a few days. And that's how it will stay.
As I said, I was so excited to bring on the "Christmas Cheer" and make my home one big warm fuzzy so that I could really grasp the essence of Christmas. What says Christmas more than a warm night in sipping hot cocoa while watching "It's a Wonderful Life?" As newlyweds, Jonathan and I don't have a ton of money so I scrounged up enough to go to the Dollar Store and buy a few more items. Just enough to make my home feel cozy. All I got was some bells for our front door and some silver ornaments to hang from the ceiling. And then it all changed one night.
On a cold Friday night after leaving my job, I went to the Lynchburg House of Prayer to spend some time with the Lord. While there, the Lord convicted me of my recent purchase. I felt deep in my Spirit that I should not hang my few Christmas ornaments nor the bells on my front door.
By Sunday at church I felt so convicted about making Christmas "warm and fuzzy" instead of what it was about, that I knew in my heart it would be again the Lord leading to hang my $5 worth of ornaments I had just purchased. Seriously. So I took the ornaments and stuffed them in the closet until next year. All the while staring up to the heavens repeatedly thinking "But it's just $5 worth of stuff from the Dollar Store. Are you sure?" I knew this wasn't a lesson in materialism as much as it was about obedience. Isn't it crazy how God wants our obedience in the smallest of things; just $5 of Christmas decorations?
Since we wouldn't be spending Christmas at home this year and it would be a little more difficult to make our own traditions while away, I thought about purchasing two stockings from etsy and having them embroidered with our names. This would be our one tradition -- we would have those stockings forever. After days of wrestling with this in my head, I once again decided this lesson wasn't just about the ornaments, it was about remembering this holiday for what it about. Instead of purchasing ornate stockings this year, Jonathan and I instead chose to give what we had away. I recognized that we had been giving, but not when we are in need or just "okay" financially. We had only been giving when were living in abundance. What a joy it was to give. Some friends in our church needed money to pay a bill, and to know we could bless them in that way took away every urge of mine to purchase anything else red, white and sparkly. Not that giving brings the same warm fuzzy feelings that stockings and Christmas trees do, it brings a deeper joy... it was true joy. It was God saying, "Thank you for honoring this holiday for what it is about… delivering peace, joy and hope."
As I sat on top of our washing machine talking to Jonathan, I reminded him how long ago we said Christmas would be about others and Jesus. Slowly had I slipped into the human perspective of Christmas… get, get, and get some more. I praise the Lord that he brought me back to reality. Though I thoroughly enjoyed baking Christmas treats today and we will host a Christmas party next week, I can now enjoy Christmas music, decor and parties without having those things bring me the joy that I always needed from my Savior. As much as I wanted to start many traditions this year, I can now say my first tradition will be obedience.
for once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
- Pablo Neruda, from the poem "Keeping Quiet"
I grew up high church bells and smells, church choir Episcopalian, as close to Anglican as you can get on this side of the Atlantic. On Christmas Eve we listened to the BBC's "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols," live from King's College, Cambridge. It was plummy-tastic, all King Jamesy, all "Lo, the angel said unto Mary." The voices of the choirboys singing in Latin. Is there any human sound more clear and midnighty?
Afterwards, we'd eat. A whole salmon on the grill and there would be plum pudding with hard sauce. Hard sauce being about a pound of unsalted butter whipped with bourbon, and then chilled. Good Lord. I was nine.
My sister was six. We would put together a plate of sugar cookie reindeer for Santa, and almonds for the reindeer, and then the best part. We'd have a sleepover. In my room, in the attic of our house where it was always at least 10 degrees colder than in the livingroom downstairs, where the ceramic logs of the gas fireplace were fading from red-hot.
We tuned in the pop radio station we listened to, B-94 FM Pittsburgh. Slow jams. I think for me this will always be my childhood memory of Christmas, a palate cleansing of pop music after pious music, my sister whispering philosophical things at 2 a.m. like, "Does Santa fart?" That would make me hysterical with laughter, because we can't sleep, we're too excited, and think we hear reindeer hooves on the roof.
She'd eventually fall asleep. I'd turn the radio off, and listen to the quiet, maybe to the sound of snow falling if we were lucky enough to have a white Christmas. Always -- and to this day I hear Dylan Thomas in my mind, intoning "A Child's Christmas in Wales" with his voice like an oboe, "I said some words to the close and holy darkness" -- I'd try to think of something to say, to sum up the experience of waiting, and knowing what is coming is good.
It is rare now, as an adult with spinal arthritis, and young children of my own; the tidings I more frequently receive are MRI reports, and report cards. I am a handmaiden of the lunch box. What of the close and holy darkness? What of giggling with my sister? What of listening?
I've made it a practice to search for it, sometimes finding it, after everyone has been tucked in to bed, sugarplums no doubt dancing in their heads, while I fill out field trip permission slips. I hear in my head, an angel, which in my syncretic faith speaks like Dylan Thomas, Fear not, he says. He says the right thing, always.
For my husband and I, this year has been a difficult time. A year full of family problems, the illnesses and deaths of people we love, the loss of one of our precious cats, my own worsening chronic illness. For the first time in my life, this year, we won't be having the big family Christmas party that I have always loved. I've shopped online for our grandchildren. I allowed them to choose something that they really wanted this year, which was a big help to me, since shopping for growing children can be challenging. It makes me feel good that they are not greedy, but thankful. The time with them is vital to us. We love to share the Christmas stories of our childhoods with them. For the most part, however, this Christmas will be a quiet one.
Sound sad? Not at all! I am a Spiritual Christian. I have always loved Christmas and although I know that December 25 is highly unlikely to have been the day that Christ was born, the exact day makes no difference to me. What does make a difference is that He WAS born. I believe that the Messiah has come and that is, for me, reason to celebrate. I smile to myself when many people that I love, who celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, point out that the day is wrong, that Christmas trees were, in the beginning, a pagan tradition, that they don't believe that St. Nicholas was real, etc. All of these arguments against celebrating the Christmas season as The Holy Season, are meaningless to me. I care about the present time. I decorate a tree because I love to and I do it as a form of worship and celebration. I am unconcerned with the origins of the tradition. I know what it means to me. I have always thought that children love to believe in Santa Claus and that it is one of the best traditions of a childhood. My own grandchildren, even as they get older, do not want to give up the tradition.
Regarding the Christmas tree, this year considering that we have had a challenging time, I decided to decorate my ficus tree. It was so easy and fun and different, and a statement that it doesn't matter that everything be perfect, or traditional. In addition to the tree I've placed our family Bible in the entry way open to the Christmas Story in St. Luke. I've placed candles all around the house and only a few other decorations. We plan to meet some of our children and grandchildren for a meal at a restaurant. We both cook and we are planning intimate dinners for two throughout the Season, as well as extra lunches out, breakfast in bed, spoil our remaining cat, watching good movies, enjoying each other's company. We are giving more to others in need. We plan to help in our own community. We have decided that the time has come to change the way we celebrate.
I am feeling so relaxed and happy and the joy of the Holy Season has descended upon me more than ever before. The last few days have been a true revelation for me; that the peace that I feel during this particular time is, indeed, the peace that we Christians believe Christ came to bring to all of us. I can only describe the feelings that I have about this Christmas is that it is truly Holy. In the midst of personal difficulties, family difficulties and worldly difficulties, God has blessed me with a great peace and for this and all that He gives me, I am thankful. i believe that the Holy Season is a time to stop and pause for awhile from the cares of this world.
As I work around my home, I listen to Christmas music and I silently and constantly pray for those in need, for those in war, for our family, our community, our country and the world. I believe that we already have the best gifts of all, within us. May we each use our gifts this Holy Season and throughout the year to make this world a better place for us all. Merry Christmas to all.
There are two ways to go about being accepting of all religions. One is to scrub all religious symbols from the public space and the other is to make room for all such symbols. I grew up in India, a society that believes in the latter.
A few years ago, my friend Saira who is an Indian Muslim called to wish me “Happy Diwali” -- Diwali, as many of you probably know, is the biggest holiday in the Hindu calendar. She talked about how she missed being with her family in India who had all come together due to the Diwali holidays. Even as I felt heartened by her generous spirit, her openhearted sharing taught me a couple of important lessons.
I am embarrassed to admit that for the first time I became aware of how non-Hindus might feel in the midst of Diwali celebrations in India –- not too different from how I feel during all the Christmas hoopla here in the U.S. But, I also learned about joining in, of sharing the spirit of the holiday.
Last year I appreciated receiving a “Merry Christmas” greeting from my friend Maya, a Hindu friend who lives in India.
In wishing me “Happy Diwali” and “Merry Christmas,” both my friends were expressing the same sentiment -– they were acknowledging (rather than willfully ignoring) each event. While Saira was essentially saying, “Hope you enjoy this day that is important to you,” Maya was saying, “Hope you enjoy the festivities and time off that is occasioned by the celebrations around you.”
In the same spirit, I offer a cheery “Merry Christmas” to all.
15 years ago this Christmas Eve, a Dallas man who had conquered his numerous homeless stints felt a need to make good to some of his homeless colleagues by creating for them a world-class Christmas event. His pioneering celebration took place on Christmas Eve of 1997, at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion in downtown Dallas.
That man was me, Mark Pfeifer. I only had $1,000 in life savings but, nonetheless, I took $800 of it and funded my first "Angelic Christmas Crusade" at the Hyatt. 13 homeless souls got a free night of lodging at the Hyatt plus clothing, food and a church service at the Cathedral of Guadalupe. A homeless man, the late Doc Watson, was one of the lucky recipients. However, he was not the least bit pleased when I knocked on his hotel door, that evening, to inform him of the 9 p.m. church service. Mr. Watson was grouchy and vehemently voiced his disapproval of attending any kind of church service. Nevertheless, he finally succumbed to some coaxing and off to church we all went. (I could never force them into entering the church, but I most certainly could bus them to the front entrance. It was then up to them whether they would actually enter through the front doors for the service.) And then it happened. The ensuing church service had a sort of miraculous affect on grouchy old Doc. After church he walked up to me outside the church and in his low, resonating voice proclaimed with misty eyes, “Mark, thank you for the inspiring church service. It’s the most meaningful Christmas I’ve ever had.” And then the unthinkable occurred, he hugged me. I had Catholic schooling in small town America and the real meaning of Christmas reigned supreme in Humphrey, Nebraska. That’s why I have always recognized the religious/spiritual aspect of Christmas.
And dear Mr. Watson, on that cold Christmas Eve in Dallas, firmly convinced me to never waver from that conviction. Blessedly, the “Doc episode” has been repeated many times over 14 years by some of the 1200 homeless participants in my Christmas tradition at the Hyatt, and other upscale hotels around Dallas. I have also felt that the ultimate degree of love is when you care about someone’s "spiritual welfare.” It can also be the ultimate Christmas gift. So, take someone to church with you this Christmas Eve. You just might have a nice surprise. Just like Doc.
We are midwives to this mythic birth each year, no less than someone else guided us, or our children, into the world. Each life, each birth, each child is a little piece of the Holy and of the whole. Each child born -- our own children, and each one of us -- is as sacred as the other. Each life changes the world… on a grand scale or a small one. Each baby born carries within it possibilities of what has not come before. Each night that a child is born is a holy night.
This is, I must point out, more than a nice sentiment. This is also an imperative. Each one of us is born sacred. In the image of God. With potential Buddha-Nature. With inherent worth and dignity. Therefore no one is greater, or lesser than another. No one deserves more, or less. Each one of us is deserving of love, peace, compassion and justice. You. Me. That co-worker you’ve been avoiding. The crack-addicted baby abandoned in the NICU, and his mother. The homeless guy on the corner. The death row inmate. The politician. The alcoholic. The refugee. The dictator. All of us.
Each one of us, then, is also capable of and responsible for helping to shape a world that reflects that kind of radical equality. As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t sit around hoping and waiting for a Messiah. But I don’t think we’ve fully awoken, either, to the truth: the Messiah, the coming of light and hope, the learning and teaching of a new way, the bringing of balance and love… that’s us. And every child that comes into the world.
This is the heart of Christmas. We can look into this story… peer through it, even, and recognize the miracle that attends all births. That each of us is deserving of, and capable of great acts of love. That each of us begins the same way -- helpless, limbs flailing, reaching out to others to help us find our way. That each of us carries within us the potential to live rightly, do justice, feed the hungry, care for the sick, to give ourselves away for something much greater than one life can ever be. Each one of us is a bringer of light, of hope, of peace into a world that still, sometimes, seems shrouded in darkness.
So welcome this little baby, once again, with songs and blessings and celebrations and carols and giving. As all little babies should be welcomed. Little, holy, loved and loving. They are the lights of the world.
It’s always darkest before the Dawn
I can’t help but reminisce about the first time I was taught about Advent. I was about 10 years old and my mother asked me to wake up with her at 4:30 a.m. in the morning. When she first asked me to do this, I was so excited, because before then, I had to be in bed at 9:00 p.m. and would always complain she treated me like a child.
But now she was asking me to do something that in my mind had always been for the “Grown-up”. However, when the morning came and she woke me up, I was everything but excited. I was tired, mad, frustrated, hungry, thirsty and much more. But definitely not excited. Then on top of that, we went outside in the middle of the night and now I was cold and could not see anything. After a while a little fear kicked in because of me being surrounded by darkness in the cold. My mother looked down at me with a smile and said, “Don’t worry. It is always darkest before the dawn.”Then all of a sudden, in the distance, I saw the Sun rise and instantly, I could see things around me that I couldn’t see, it started to feel warmer outside and almost instantaneously my fear and frustration turned to excitement and joy. And that is what Advent is all about.” It is understanding that we are sometimes in very dark places. We hunger for peace, for provision, some of us even begin to live in worry and fear. But God has promised us in His word that he would not leave us in this condition. His return, like the rising of the sun, ushers in a time of peace, joy, comfort, and freedom for those that believe. That is the love of God. That is the hope that we hold. That not only is Emanuel (God is with us) is ever present through His Holy Spirit, but that Christ himself will return and His love made manifest in everyone’s life.
Today take some time out and think about what it would be like for you to personally experience the return of Christ.
The lyrics of a well know song express a tender sentiment, and the first line of that song is familiar to many people: “If I could see the world through the eyes of a child, what a wonderful world it would be.”(1) The Friends of Quaker Monastery were blessed this year by the gift of seeing through the eyes of a child in such a particularly thoughtful way on the day before Advent.
For many Christians the first day of Advent marks the beginning of the observance of the Christmas season. At Quaker Monastery, the season of Advent is quietly commemorated with the simple symbolism of the gentle nativity. Advent is a particularly beloved season to the Friends as may be noted by the spiritual name of the community -- “Bethlehem Cloister.”
On the day before Advent this year, we were visited by a friend of Quaker Monastery who has been part of our extended spiritual family for many years. This particular day, said friend brought along, as she often does, her young daughter to visit as well. While her mother assists the Friends with various tasks, the little girl usually enjoys playing with the cats and kittens that live in the barn with the sheep and the goats. It is quite common to see this little girl walking around with at least two cats dangling in the firm, breathless embrace of her warm, cuddly hugs, in route to more hospitable surroundings and perhaps even a special treat dish prepared just for them. The little girl simply loves cats and visiting the kitties at Quaker Monastery is extra special because the severe allergy sensitivities of a family member not only prevent her from having a kitty of her own at home, but requires her to also carefully change and contain her kitty-visiting clothes in a plastic bag until they can be safely washed. So, she enjoys every moment here to the full, playing with her purring friends, and upon departure always assures kitties all, not to worry, that she will be back to visit them again soon.
When they arrived for their visit, Sister Ann was unpacking one of the nativity displays to be set-up and placed in the visitor’s area of the monastery. When the little girl came in, she took an especially awed interest in the project and touched the packaged figures with wonder.
A single whispered word slowly escaped her: “Wow…”.
It spoke volumes to Sister Ann who first thought to invite her to just help set up the display. But, looking into the wide, wonder-filled eyes of the little girl, Sister Ann couldn’t help but ask her:
“Would thee, dear child, like to set up this nativity display all by thyself?”
“Oh, yes please!” Replied the little girl with surprise, and she turned quickly with great expectation to ask her mother: “Mom, may I please?”
Her mother gladly answered; “Yes, of course,” and then went about her tasks with a smile.
Sister Ann found a basket and then directed the little girl to go out to the barn and fill that basket with some nice clean dry straw to place in the stable area of the nativity display. The little girl went off with a great sense of purpose, feeling the importance of a serious task.
She returned shortly with an ample amount of straw that had been collected from just the right place: “Right where the kitties were,” she reported as though that location was clear evidence of undisputable quality. The innocent seriousness of her intention caused Sister Ann to turn away for a moment to conceal a smile.
The little girl then began her task by thoughtfully placing bits of straw in and around the little stable in an arrangement completed by patting it all snugly and fittingly into corners and outskirts. She sat back every few moments to settle the view in her mind and rearrange as needed, without hurry. Finally satisfied, she unpacked the figures and considerately selected the first one for placement.
In creating her nativity scene, this little girl who lived in a 2011 world decided to place the figure of the baby Jesus first, before all the other figures which would be placed into the stable area, so that He would not get “lost,” as she told Sister Anne. At only 7-years-old the figure of the newborn was, in this little girl’s mind, the central point of the event and the commemorative figure was tenderly and carefully regarded in her memorial reenactment of a scene which took place over 2,000 years ago.
She thoughtfully went on to place the rest of the figures around the infant until at last, all of the figures recreated the essence of the moment from her point of view. Those viewing the display would find the figures seemingly riveted on, and attentive to, something not easily seen. Within a circle of adoration, tucked into the loving awe of human revelation, lay the tiny baby in a manger filled with straw so completely surrounded that he was obscured from outside view. The figures themselves were not placed “on display” but instead, their placement displayed the figurative focus of hearts and minds in a thoughtful, timeless way.
The little girl made the Christ child the focus of parental nurturing, star-guided adoring royalty, and a simple shepherd’s trepidatious amazement within a barnyard court of animals attending. We cannot see their faces; looking at the backs of most of the figures we can only metaphorically imagine their thoughts as a modern child reenacts for us the simplicity of a moment in time through which the world would be changed forever. The King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, born in a stable in Bethlehem.
What is the direction of our attention during the Christmas season? Where do we look with assured expectation during Advent? Bright commercial lights can never outshine the Light of Christ Jesus, and we should not be dissuaded by the persuasive tinsel of holiday commercialism and sales slogans. May we ever see the birth of Christ through the same innocent eyes and confident focus of such a modern day child as the little girl who placed the figurative person of the newborn Christ, in commemoration, at the center of an event in a stable so very far away over 2,000 years ago. As it was the center of her attention, may it also be ours, always.
A few years ago, my mother, my partner and I had the opportunity to spend Christmas time in the beach-village of La Penita de Jaltemba (Nayarit), Mexico. In American parlance, we would say that most of the Mexicans in this area live a “hardscrabble” existence. But the community is tightly knit, and families watch out for each other.
We were befriended by a young Mexican Turk who had a wife and two children. They lived in a one-room, one window brick house with no running water, a light bulb in middle of the ceiling. An electric fan stirred up the Mexican heat and chased away the flies. The parents had a full size bed crammed into one corner, and the kids slept in hammocks. The neighborhood was in a reclaimed swamp where poorer people were attempting to establish a better life for themselves. The street was nothing but dirt and potholes that filled with water when the heavy nighttime rains hit. One would think that they were among the poorest of the poor. But life was rich for them.
Martin, our new friend, was sharp, always cleanly dressed, and astute enough to know that if he got to know us, we Americans would hire him to do odd jobs for us –- paying much better than Mexican wages. What’s more, he had taught himself almost perfect English. We developed a real friendship which lasts even today. We never felt used.
Come Christmas Eve, Martin invited the three of us to dinner at his home. We immediately accepted his invitation but had no idea what to expect.
When we arrived at Martin’s and Lucy’s home, they had constructed a makeshift table in front of the building, in the middle of the potholes. Using sawhorses and various lengths, thicknesses and widths of scrap lumber placed side-by-side, the dining table was prepared for Martin’s friends. A few mismatched table cloths covered the boards. In addition to us three, Martin had also invited about 10 other American and Canadian snowbirds to share his family meal.
Lucy, who speaks no English, motioned to us to take a place at the table. Martin and the two children joined us.
Unmatched dinner plates and stainless place settings were provided to each guest, along with paper napkins. Piles of steaming corn and flour tortillas were brought to the table along with blocks of fresh Mexican butter. Bottles of Dos XX and Nerga Modelo beers were given to each of us.
Conversations between new acquaintances and friends of Martin swelled in volume as we all got to know one another and became overcome with the Christmas spirit.
A large soup kettle was carried to the table by Lucy. What surprise was in store for all these Gringos?
Martin has great respect for the sea and the jungle. One of his favorite pastimes, when there is rain, is to fish for fresh-water shrimp in the nearby mountains. For us, his friends, he had hiked into the mountains and caught several kilos of this delicacy. Lucy cleaned the shrimp, and using local “savoir faire”, Mexican spices and just plain love, she created a gourmet fresh-water shrimp stew for Martin and his new friends.
I recall Lucy standing proudly in the door of her home, smiling as she watched all of us devour the delicious meal she had prepared. I invited her to sit with us, but she politely declined. Martin informed me that in the local culture, Lucy’s place for this event was “in the kitchen”; the kitchen, by the way, was a four-burner gas stove in the one room that served all purposes.
I’m a “softy.” Tears filled my eyes as Martin, his wife and his children shared with us visitors the best they had to offer as a Christmas, a Christmas present to us all that was more valuable than anything we would ever receive from a department store. The cost of the meal had been “shared by all the guests” who had been hiring Martin to run errands for them, to escort them on trips to remote beaches, whatever. Yet, it was from Martin, Lucy and their children.
Our Fiesta de Navidad remains a precious memory. A gift more valuable than gold, frankincense and myrrh.
One of my regular practices in listening to God includes asking Him to increase my awareness in reaching out to someone who may be in need of a prayer. Sometimes I run into someone who needs a prayer, and sometimes I go days without feeling an urge to ask. Lately though, I have lived more in the "don't feel the urge to ask," region of prayer. I worked a little later than usual on the first Friday in December and was trying to hurry out of the office, but first needed to find something online. When I landed on the web page I needed, an article on the side of the browser about bullying caught my eye. At this same moment, something within me said, "Walk down to the National Portrait Gallery. There's someone outside of the building that needs prayer." I work in downtown DC, so this was not far, yet, my mind was bent on getting home. I grabbed my coat and walked to the Gallery. I quickly saw that no one was mulling around the usual hangout spots. I wondered if I'd heard right, but decided to walk around the building. I walked through a holiday street fest where local vendors boasted jewelry and soap, candles and artwork. Yet, I wasn't quite sure I'd seen this person. So I turned the corner and walked past the less populated side of the building. "Right there," something spoke. "That's him." I walked over to the young man, who was walking fast and smoking a cigarette. I got his attention and asked him, "This may sound weird, but do you need prayer for anything?" He gave me a quizzical look but said, "Yes." I then asked him, "Have you ever been or are you being bullied?" Something about his external hardness broke and he said quietly, "Yes." I simply told him that God wanted him to know that He loves him. He then told me, "I'm Muslim, and you are probably a Christian. You still want to pray for me now?" I told him yes, and we prayed. He then asked me, "Did God tell you to come find me?" I told him the truth, that I couldn't give an explanation for, "Yes." I walked away from that young man with tears welling up in my eyes. That moment of encounter reminded me what I believe about Christmas. God sent His only Son into the world so everyone would know His Love. Everyone.
I have always enjoyed the holidays with my family, although we never celebrated the religious aspect of them. My parents are nonbelievers who did not want to influence us on religion.
We have this tradition for Thanksgiving that brings real meaning for the day. Before we eat, when most families would pray, each of us would go around the table and acknowledge the things we are thankful for. Not once did any of us see the need to thank a god. As a child I would say something to the effect of "I am thankful to my parents for providing me with all these cool toys and a roof over my head." Each one of us would speak. It took a while.
Our Christmas was very secular as well, my mother would put an angel on top of the tree, but it was symbolism to us. I can't remember a time when I thought Santa was real, I had always been told he was fiction, a neat story. This did not take the fun out of it though. We played boardgames, went sledding and just sat around hot cocoa and talked. We did have another unique Christmas tradition; to be fair all the presents were from 'Santa.' It took away the material aspect of the day, not all of us had as much money to spend on each other.
Now, however, I am thousands of miles away from home and across an ocean. I realize I don't have the same community that a church offers but I do have my fellow service members who are also separated from their families and I have other nonbelievers who understand what it's like to be far from home. The local chapter Of Military Atheists and Freethinkers hosted a Thanksgiving dinner that felt almost as good as home and my unit had a dinner, too. During the Thanksgiving I take time to appreciate those who have helped me and those who made the world a better place.
Christmas is about giving back to those people, I donate my money and time to good causes. It's not about gift getting but gift giving, in my version of an atheist Christmas. I am glad to get gifts, yes, but I love that warm fuzzy feeling I get from giving them more!
Having found out that a lot of my religious effort had its roots in the alcoholism of my parents at the age of 45, I realized I had the right to go back to square one and reevaluate what I considered as my choice for spirituality. My findings were that the same story was being told through the different faiths in many different ways. I adopted paganism as my new-found faith because it embodied in its observation of cycles, the Goddess and the God, and of course, the Son/Sun. The ancients were all telling their take on how the Universe got here and how it affected us in the lore of each faith. There is a lot that we don't know about the original ways of paganism, but I am very delighted with this spirituality and its teachings as it is resurrected in this modern time. There are a myriad ways to practice paganism, and it is a faith of finding your path and what is right for you. As things spoke to me, I have added to my spirituality points of interest from other faiths. There is no dogmatic ground, it allows for solitary practice, and only one rule -- karma. It is not evangelical, so you can be as silent as you want or speak out if that is your fancy. Just do no harm to others. Yule is a grand time to me, and I love the fact that so many things pagan are "merry." Since Christmas itself encompasses so much pagan lore, we really are able to celebrate Christmas, too, especially if you choose a Judeo-Christian pantheon. Whether you say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays," it is all the same to us. Jesus is after all the equivalent of Anghus Og Mac, the God of Love in the Celtic pantheon, son of the Goddess and the God. I love the rituals, which help me to deal with my innermost self, and I love the practice of The Craft, which I believe is more about dealing with one's self than zapping someone else. It works that way for me, at any rate. God is Spirit, Goddess is Creation, and the Son is the blending of the two, by whatever name. That pattern extends through so many faiths out there. We really have more in common than we think. Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again.
As I write this, the promise that Christmas Day holds for my family has yet to be realized. The halls are decked and our stockings now hang -- empty, yet pregnant with hope. The mistletoe waits patiently, as does the tree, aglow with the holiday spirit of all who helped trim it. The doors open wide to welcome family and friends who will soon come to call. Notes to Santa have been carefully crafted, plans for preparing his feast of sugary treats have been finalized and last minute wishes have been whispered ever-so-earnestly in his ear.
I can only imagine the warmth I’ll feel come Christmas morning. Or during Holy Communion the night before, moved by the wonderment and intimacy surrounding the event. Like every other year in the days leading up to the 25th, I am still deeply immersed in this tide of tides, wrapped up in all that the season embodies -- hope, remembrance and the spirit of unconditional giving.
As you read this, that special day has already passed. The time has since come and gone. But hopefully some semblance of the warmth lingers -- like that of a sun baked stone, long after the shadows of evening have consumed it.
I think that’s what matters most to me this time of year -- that the warmth of the Yuletide continues beyond December and well into the new year, despite the blazing crescendo-type ending defined by our calendars and the torrent of post-holiday sales. Moreover, I want the same for my family. I want the true spirit of Christmas to endure in their hearts at least till the Canada geese return, if not longer. But that’s a particularly tall order these days. Society demands that we charge swiftly forward to the next major holiday or seasonal event, paying no mind to that which has already passed. “Sift through the remnants of chintzy cologne and bedroom slippers already, and move on to heart-shaped boxes of chocolates! Valentine’s Day is just around the corner!” advertisers would likely suggest.
I’d prefer to linger here awhile, however; to soak up the goodness that surrounds me and to delay the crushing finality of it all, which hits me squarely like a sack of sadness as I pack up the ornaments and good cheer -- shoving them deep in the recesses of my attic, forsaking both for a time. That’s what I hate most about the holiday -- and about myself. The warmth, it seems, is only temporary. Maybe that’s why I adopted a silly little tradition of giving each of my children fuzzy pajamas for Christmas -- to remind us of the warmth of that morning, of that season, of the people in our lives.
Maybe I do it because I sometimes feel as if it’s the only way I can fight the almighty clock. At least symbolically, I can wrap my beloved charges in a cottony embrace and hold on to them -- today and always -- or at least until they outgrow my fleecy offerings. But I can always buy more. Larger and perhaps trendier versions of the same thing. Year after year, for decades theoretically. And whether they sport reindeer, or snowflakes or elves with stupid-looking hats matters little. In my mind, a snuggly pair of PJ’s will forever be considered a gift worth giving and worthy of receiving, despite the chorus of gripes and grumbles my motley crew is sure to deliver.
“Mom, you gave us jammies -- AGAIN!” the youngest ones will grouse. “How lame,” my twenty-something will likely protest.
“Pshaw! (You ungrateful twerps) I gave you something of boundless value -- something that shouts ‘I love you!’ from the hilltops -- something that captures the true essence of the warm fuzzies! What on earth could be better?!”
Of course, this was -- and continues to be -- a rhetorical question.
In the church of my mid-1960s growing up years, one of the major events that took place during the weeks leading up to Christmas was the Christmas Play.
I have no idea how the casting was done. Somehow, parts would be assigned and rehearsals would begin. The cast and crew would work for weeks and weeks in preparation for the single performance that would take place on a Sunday night a couple of weeks before Christmas.
The plays were horrible.
They were also wonderful.
If you want to get a feel for what they were like, watch the movie "Waiting for Guffman," which revolves around a community theatre production. Compared to the Christmas plays at Midway Baptist Church, the play in the movie was Tony-worthy.
To be fair, that play was a musical. We did drama at Midway.
I don’t remember the plots. I do remember some of the scenes.
I remember my overall-clad father, standing at an open window outside of which a red light glowed, declaring “That’s a big fire (he pronounced it ‘far’) over there (he pronounced it ‘thar’).” I suspect that he had pronounced it straight during the rehearsals. Daddy was a ham.
I remember two brothers getting into a fight over a toy -- I think it was a toy train -- under a Christmas tree.
I remember my one and only appearance in one of the plays. The play was set in a department store. I was in line at a cash register. I wanted to buy a gift for my sick mother. With my quarter I planned to purchase a gray rose. Who ever saw a gray rose? The nice clerk told me that for the same quarter I could purchase a pretty red one. It was stark, moving drama. Preacher Bill rolled in laughter during the entire scene.
I remember the obligatory nativity scene near the end of each play. It was usually a dream sequence. Somehow, though, they got the Christmas Story into whatever Christmas story they were telling.
Like I said, the plays were horrible. It would be kind to call our actors amateurs.
But like I also said, they were wonderful. They were wonderful because those were our church members, our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, up there on that stage making fools of themselves, whether they knew it or not, all for the sake of our entertainment and especially for the sake of telling the story of Christmas.
They were wonderful exactly because of their amateurish character. In these days of slick production values and hyper-critical “make sure it’s quality stuff” church audiences, it’s refreshing to remember the sincerity and maybe even integrity of those cheesy performances.
But the main reason they were wonderful is in the point that was made: the Christmas Story is our story. The epiphany in those plays had to do with the fact that the Christ who came at Christmas comes into our run of the mill lives in our run of the mill world and changes things -- he changes us. Yes, he came to the manger and was visited by shepherds; yes, angels announced his coming; yes, something marvelous and miraculous happened all those years ago.
Just as much of a miracle, though, is that it still happens now.
And that’s what those awfully terrific and terrifically awful Christmas plays taught me.
The story of Hanukkah has been etched on my mind ever since I was a high school student. Each year, around winter vacation time, senior school students from the Jewish, Hindu and Christian faiths would explore the theme of good overcoming evil and light over darkness through a celebration of the ‘Festivals of Light.’ My Jewish peers would reenact the powerful story of Hanukkah through the Maccabees revolting against the oppressive Antiochus and the miracle of the menorah lighting.
It is a story that encapsulates the values of social justice, human rights and faith as a force for good.
This is the very story, which inspired me to host an inter-generational multi-faith celebration of Hanukkah at Ruben’s House, a Jewish care home in London.
The event formed part of the global Faiths Act SolidariTea campaign -- one which highlights the importance of the human right to health and how solidarity between people of diverse faiths and cultures can work together to help realize this right.
Over the weekend, my colleague Catherine Mansoor and I brought young people of Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish faiths together with the elderly residents. Our vision was to inspire the youth to join forces in raising awareness about health as human right through the values taught by Hanukkah.
The festival is a celebration and we marked this through storytelling, music, doughnuts and tea! The residents shared their personal stories about Hanukkah, while the young people described their own festivals, illustrating the common values between all the faiths.
The elderly were very keen to stress that Hanukkah highlights the need for conviction, compassion and most importantly hope in striving for social justice. They were passionate about applying these key values from their faith to the universal issue of global health.
Every 45 minutes a child dies from malaria –- a preventable disease, and one of the greatest human rights tragedies today.
Just as I was inspired by the message of Hanukkah as a Hindu student in school, it was clear that the multi-faith group of young people were motivated to start addressing issues such as malaria to help those oppressed by global poverty.
The young people and residents teamed up to write letters and cards of support which will be delivered to Faiths Act Malaria Faith Ambassadors on the ground in Sierra Leone. It was touching to see individuals from different generations and faiths explore the values of Hanukkah together and communicate these thoughts.
As the Maccabees had the courage to stand up for their beliefs, I feel Hanukkah encourages us to speak about our common values. Not only can it help us rekindle our personal commitments to social justice, but also encourage others of all faiths to join forces, take action and advocate change.
The menorah starts off with just one little flame and transforms into a beacon of light, comprising of eight candles, by the last day of Hanukkah. This illustrates that each one of us can bring light to those whose lives have been darkened by poverty and collectively stand together as a stronger force for good.
It could not be any more fitting that the first night of Hanukkah today coincides with UN Solidarity Day -- the final day of the SolidariTea campaign.