Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, our best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice and/or Christmas and/or Hanukkah and/or Humanlight holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice to practice religious or secular traditions at all. Oh what the heck, merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, joyful Solstice, and peaceful Humanlight; may you have a meaningful holiday.
But how can we possibly have a meaningful holiday with all the chaos, black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, multiple and perplexing traditions, the controversy over red Starbucks cups, multiple seemingly mandatory family gatherings, buying presents, setting up decorations? And we miss our loved ones who are far away, or who are no longer with us, particularly those who have recently died. And maybe we have too high expectations of having a wonderful holiday, and those expectations are not met. Some of us feel hammered by the unrelenting commercialism of the season. And those of us who don’t celebrate this season at all feel trapped and assaulted by all the noise and lights and ceaseless ho-ho-hoing. There is no escape from it. No wonder many people get depressed over the holidays. Yet this chaotic time of year is “supposed to be” a time of celebration: the winter solstice, burning the Yule Log, the New Year, the birth of the Christ Child, the Maccabees winning freedom for Judah, remembrance of the history and roots of Humanism.
This reading from the Old Testament book of Amos speaks to the meaningless ritual.
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
This prophet was speaking to the Hebrew people who were not living righteous lives, not living lives that were moral and ethical—while practicing their religious rituals. Amos and the other eighth century prophets were clear; don’t just do rote ritual, empty ritual, meaningless ritual; live a moral, ethical, spiritual life and let ritual be an outgrowth of your life.
Do we do that today? Well historically, some of the seasonal celebrations seemed a little less than meaningful. In the England of 1066, celebrations at Christmas got out of hand. King Henry the 8th and his court tried to outdo each other in outrageous abundance. It is said he had 600 oxen killed and prepared for a single feast. And gambling on the altars of the church were a common part of the festivities. Perhaps we can see from the extremism where celebrating for the sake of celebrating can go—we don’t do that today. Or do we? Fighting over gifts at Best Buy or Walmart on Black Friday, and some stores opening at 2 PM on Thanksgiving day, resulting in people not actually having time to gather with loved ones and give thanks, so they can buy the newest best gift on the market. I do have to admit to partaking in this Black Friday ritual in years past. I rationalized that I was able to give more gifts by saving more money on each gift. But the reality was I was caught up in the high, the buzz, the addiction to the chaos and consumerism. I have come to understand my addiction. I understand now that there is no meaning in consumption for consumption’s sake. I have let go of this meaningless ritual.
However, inside each of us, whether instinctive or not, is a desire to light up the night, to celebrate with yule logs and candle lit feasts, when the darkness lasts so long. As the poem ‘Miracle of Light’ suggests “though the gloom may crowd us still, the light may lift our hearts …” We Unitarian Universalists often find ourselves wondering what exactly we’re supposed to celebrate, how are we and why are we lighting up the night? How do we discern which, if any, traditions we find personally meaningful. I believe most of us don’t want to celebrate meaningless festivals.
I believe we might start to discern what to do during this season by asking: Am I doing this (whatever “this ritual, tradition, or feast” is) out of habit? Or as an authentic part of my spiritual or non-spiritual seasonal expression? I ask you for a moment to reflect on this time of year: what makes it meaningful to you? (pause) Perhaps certain decorations, stories about Santa Claus, music, gatherings, religious stories, childhood memories. Or maybe this time of year has lost all meaning for you. And you might be okay with that, and that’s fine. But if you find yourself wishing you could find more meaning than the Early Bird Sales might offer you, you might consider some meaningful ritual. A ritual is a set of sequential actions or a ceremony, religious or not, that is supposed to offer an opportunity to make mental and spiritual space to experience something meaningful, whatever that intangible “something” may be. I talked about ritual at our bread sharing service—we don’t have many specifically Unitarian Universalist rituals—other than lighting our chalice. Rituals can give us the opportunity to go a little deeper, learn a little more, grow in heart and spirit, if we accept their invitation to do so.
I read the ‘Cajun Night Before Christmas’ because reading this story is part of my family’s ritual celebration during this time of year. We decided on our traditions as a family. When our kids were growing up, our Christmas ritual went like this; we went to our local Unitarian Universalist Church on Christmas Eve; we especially enjoyed singing Silent Night by candle light. Then we went home, put on our Santa hats and read the Christmas Story from Christian Gospel of Luke, ‘A Night Before Christmas’ and ‘The Cajun Night Before Christmas’. The kids liked the ‘The Cajun Night Before Christmas’ best. We would then open one gift each and go to bed; usually the boys wanted to open the gift they got each other, a small but always thoughtful gift. My wife and I would set up for Christmas morning—presents under the tree and building whatever toys that needed to be assembled. I still remember the trouble I had putting that Little Tykes fort with a slide together; I was supposed to hold one of the feet of the fort while holding onto the base of the fort, while hammering the foot and providing pressure on the base so the hammering actually resulted in the foot setting firmly into the base. I needed four hands to do this. It took me most of the night. Then many Christmas Eves, Martha and I would take a little time, with some hot chocolate, to look at the lights on the Christmas Tree. The next morning we’d wake up and open presents together; packages and wrapping paper strewn everywhere. We then went to my parents’ house to have a family celebration and a feast.
Why are rituals important to humans? Well, I can tell you these traditions were important to my children. They made sure that each year we followed these traditions to the letter, even reading the story from Luke, which they pretty much only tolerated. Being a psychotherapist, I know that routine helps children feel safe and secure. They can feel trust in their parents, and in their world. And while small children may not be able to understand the abstract concepts of sacred, spirit, holy, or even understand the meaning of the ritual and traditions this time of year, they see their parents practicing their faith, and they participate in traditions that are given importance by their parents. Our children understand what faith, belief, and values are by seeing their parents live their faith, beliefs, and values. And they, in turn, do the same in their time, and so the generations go forward.
Lots of people have told me Christmas is just for children. Well, at the very least there is a child inside of many of us who wants to participate in the traditions and celebrations this time of year. But also, the rituals and celebrations we choose to participate in this time of the year are important external expressions of our faith, beliefs, and values. We share our love for our family, friends and church community this time of year. We express traditions that have meaning to us.
Perhaps you think, “I don’t believe in Santa Claus or Jesus. I don’t care about Maccabees or famous Humanists. I don’t want to burn a yule log, or join in a Solstice celebration. And I don’t like giving gifts, decorating my house, or singing Christmas carols. I don’t have any children. I am not going to celebrate or participate in any rituals this time of year.” Bah, Humbug! Well I encourage you to stop, and take time to reflect on the meaning of this time of year for yourself before you decide not to do anything. Consider what connects you with your faith, beliefs, and values. Perhaps there is a way to affirm, remember, promote your faith, beliefs or values during this season.
Recently, I have been trying to consider the meaning of the gifts that I give. I intentionally buy gifts that are locally made or gifts that support far-away oppressed groups, like Fair Trade items made by individual crafters, usually women. A couple of years ago I gave my mother a herd of geese. When she opened the card saying that I had bought a herd of geese for her, she was not sure what to make of it. But then I told her it was from Heifer international and the geese would be given to a group of people somewhere in the world who could use them to be more self-sufficient. Well, she got it and appreciated the meaning of the gift. This year I am giving all my nieces and nephews water bottle holders made by the Guatemalan artisans from A Thread of Hope, supporting their fund for scholarships for young Maya and helping to fund ergonomic chairs for backstrap loom weavers. It’s a way I can honor and express my Humanist values while participating in the Christmas Ritual of gift-giving, and doing this opens opportunities for conversations about income inequality and fair trade economics.
What can you do that might bring some personal meaning to this season? Maybe you could put out evergreens as a symbol of life like the Celts, or put out holly berries that live through winter and symbolize life in the face of death, like some Christians. Maybe you put out a crèche scene, a tradition that St. Francis of Assisi started in 1224, considering the meaning of the Christian birth narrative. Maybe you have a feast this time of year, a tradition that goes back to the Sumerians and Old Babylonians, to light up the darkness of the earth and lighten up our hearts with celebrations. Maybe you choose to give gifts, a tradition that dates back to Saturn’s triumph over Jupiter in the Golden Age of Rome, to express your love to those that you share your life with. Maybe you light candles to ritualistically ward off evil spirits, or light the darkness in remembrance of the sun’s return or to send your prayers to heaven. Maybe you celebrate and express humanist-oriented values and ideals in a positive manner, choosing gifts that reflect your ethics and that better the worldwide human condition.
Perhaps a place to start is to reflect on what memories of this time of year are meaningful to you? What calls to you from your deepest self this time of year that wants expression? Look within for what you remember, celebrate, for why and how you decorate, what you participate in, what you teach your children about this time of year. I would suggest that filling this time of year with people you love is not a bad idea for anybody. But you are the one who has to make the decisions about what rituals and traditions are important to you, your family, friends and church; especially in this Unitarian Universalist Church for we celebrate what you as a community want to celebrate. This year we have a Haunnaka meal, two Christmas Eve services, two Solstice celebrations and a Humanlight gathering.
The best way to search for what is “right” for you this time of year is through silent reflection, prayer or meditation. As Unitarian James Martineau says of silence, it is “the great storehouse of our spiritual dynamics, where divine energies lie hid for any enterprise.” While in that time of silence, ask yourself not only what traditions feel right for you, also ask “What traditions from my childhood, my faith, beliefs, and values are important or meaningful to me?” Ask yourself “Why are they important or meaningful?” You might also ask “Am I willing to put in the time and effort needed for this to truly be an individual, family or church tradition? Something that I will carry forward for years to come.” These seasonal rituals are spiritual practices. A lot of people keep meaning to get around to a spiritual practice, but never find the time, energy or resources. Find a tradition that you can put into practice, one that is meaningful to you. And perhaps even more important, take the bold step of dropping a holiday practice that isn’t feeding you, no longer brings you joy, and then use the time and energy you used to spend on that to create a moment of silence in the seasonal chaos or create a spirit space to reflect on the meaning of the season for you, or create a heart space for yourself to affirm the love you have for those you share this life with. Just give yourself the gift of time during this season; this can be the beginning of a deeply meaningful spiritual practice.
Bring the spiritual and ethical into this time of year--express your beliefs, your spirituality, your values in this season of celebration—not only to model for your kids, if you have them, but also to feel the light of the spirit in your own heart during this dark time of year.
Let us now turn inward in the spirit of meditation:
Let us remember those times over the years that we spent with our loved ones during holiday seasons past,
And as we reflect, let us explore our hearts and souls, to help us find the significance that speaks to us about this time of year.
And let us find ways in the present, in this holiday season, to let our spirits and values show. Let them show, let them show, let them show.
Amen, Blessed Be, Shalom