Assortments of Thought

Happy Holidays to All

Posted on: December 29th, 2013

As the days grow cold and the nights grow long, it’s that time of year again. Families and individuals across the nation–and much of the world–are gearing up to celebrate, or else already have. It’s a time of joy and yet stress, of frantic paces and yet quite moments, and a time of remembrance, indeed, and yet of looking forward as well. Yet it’s also a time of some controversy, over the usual squabbles; whether the proper greeting is “Merry Christmas” or not–whether “Happy Holidays” is offensive or not–and how much or how little governments, businesses, and schools should adhere to given traditions. Such may colorfully be referred to as the “War on Christmas”; but despite the strong feelings often involved, perhaps there’s really very little we have to fret about. Such diverse holidays as Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, Chinese New Year, Eid al-Fitr, and Kwanzaa do indeed represent divergent traditions, traditions that can’t be entirely reconciled. Perhaps there’s nonetheless a common thread throughout all our “winter” holidays though–a spirit of togetherness, love, and hope for the future–that’s really all that need matter to all of us outside of most traditions. The issue with public institutions is a bit more complicated, involving separation of church and state; private rights in public but privately-owned businesses; and cultural or secular traditions versus religious ones; but, even there, just accepting each others’ traditions needn’t be so hard. We need only to think of each other in the spirit of the season, and then whatever our own traditions or choices of greeting may be, speaking and listening with our hearts, we’ll surely have happy holidays for all.

The numerous “winter” holidays do indeed come from many divergent traditions, spanning multiple religions and cultures. Not all of them are even celebrated in the same month–or even in winter each year–though we may nonetheless consider them roughly analogous. Christmas, for instance, is perhaps the most widely celebrated winter holiday, being observed by Christians religiously, and by some Jews and many atheists, agnostics, and others secularly. Generally observed on December 25th (in most parts of the world; for some, it marks the beginning of the Twelve Days as well), it’s a day for families and friends to gather together, sharing a great dinner and exchanging gifts in houses perhaps decorated with Christmas lights, while Christians first and foremost celebrate the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Hanukkah, on the other hand, is observed only by Jews as a largely but certainly not entirely secular, eight-day holiday, and commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple upon the retaking of Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC. As the miracle is recounted of the oil having lasted until more could be procured–a full eight days–it’s a time for families and friends to exchange gifts, play games, and prepare certain fried foods, culminating in a great feast; along, of course, with the progressive lighting of the menorah each night, and of the offering of special prayers. Like most winter holidays, it lacks a fixed date in the Gregorian calendar, and in fact begins each year anytime between the ends of November and December.

Eid al-Fitr, in particular, is even more variable, occurring eleven days earlier than before each year, and so cycling through all twelve months. Having been instituted by the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, Muslims observe it for between one and three days as the festive culmination of Ramadan. Hence the extra gratitude and appreciation given to God during the nightly fasts of Ramadan are celebrated with visits between family and friends, including gift-giving and the sharing of sweet and other such flavorful dishes, along with general festivities. Of course, the spirit of Ramadan continues as well with gifts to charity and to those less fortunate, and of endeavoring to forgive and forget animosities from the preceding year. Prayer, naturally, is given extra special focus as well.

Kwanzaa yet stands out for being a purely cultural holiday–and one just instituted within the past century–to be observed each year during the week spanning from December 26th to January 1st. Although it was originally conceived of as an alternative holiday in the vein of black nationalism, it has since evolved as simply a stand-alone, added celebration of African heritage and unity. Centered on what it’s creator deemed the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, which may perhaps be summarized as unity of, self-reliance upon, and faith for moving forward within the family, community, and nation (see the Wikipedia article “Kwanzaa“, sec. 2), it’s a time for gatherings involving the display of fresh fruits and other decorations and art; musical and other artistic performances; a candle-lighting ritual; libations for one’s ancestors; feasts; and, of course, reflection on the Seven Principles–one per day–among other traditions.

Finally, there are of course holidays for the new year as well. New Year’s in particular is widely celebrated–on December 31st and January 1st, by nearly all those that celebrate Christmas at least–and is typically an occasion to get together with family or friends to party and perhaps drink, culminating with a countdown and toast at midnight in remembrance of people no longer present, and for good health and times in the upcoming year. Chinese New Year, on the other hand, is observed only by Chinese in and out of China (although it has impacted new year’s celebrations in other Asian countries at least for sure), and spans sixteen days, beginning anywhere from the middle of January to the middle of February. While exact customs vary among Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucians–and even from region to region–it’s common for families to have a great reunion dinner, and to clean the house in order to prepare it for good luck, cleansing out the bad. And, as the legends speak of a great beast that preyed upon livestock, crops, and villagers at the beginning of every year until it was eventually discovered that the color red and firecrackers would drive it away, it’s also typical to hang red lanterns, scrolls, and auspicious sayings during the celebrations, and to set off firecrackers or other fireworks. Lastly, among many other potential things, small gifts may be exchanged between different households–perhaps obtained from the annual markets that are often set up–while young, unmarried people may receive red packets of money from elderly or married couples as well.

Needless to say then, taken individually, the various winter holidays are indeed quite different, and it’s only natural that observers of any one day are not likely to observe many others. After all, we all have our own beliefs and traditions before anything else, and that’s okay–perhaps even essential. Yet in spite of all that, it seems to me that our diverse winter holidays nonetheless share certain threads, threads which are just as integral to each of them as are all the distinct parts; things like sharing company with family and friends; indulging in great feasts; exchanging gifts; strengthening a festive spirit with decorations and celebrations; finding forgiveness and true consideration of those less fortunate; and, of course, believing that miracles of old are still here with us in one way or another, even to this very day. After all, every winter holiday involves a gathering of family and friends, along with celebrations. Kwanzaa involves extensive decoration, as does Christmas for many; Eid al-Fitr emphasizes charity and forgiveness, as Christmas often does; and Hanukkah’s based on a miracle of the Lord, again, similar to Christmas. Eid al-Fitr includes an exchange of gifts, while Chinese New Year further features a great feast; all things that Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa also share. And, of course, New Year’s and Chinese New Year are both about hopes of good fortune and warm wishes for the future, a future all of us will all too soon encounter. Clearly then, despite the irreconcilable differences between them, our winter holidays nonetheless share a certain spirit of the season, such that observance of just one or another needn’t preclude some knowledge and respect of the others. Rather, we have much to be “tolerant” over in accepting one another’s traditions–as the term goes–even though tolerance really has very little to do with it, when just showing some acknowledgement is all most of us really need do, when coming across others’ holidays and celebrations.

Of course, the issue is somewhat more complicated when it comes to what governments, businesses, and schools do each season, since such institutions must try to please all of us with regards to how much or how little they celebrate Christmas or other holidays. Whether it’s discontent over the display of Nativity scenes or Christmas trees; the use of “holiday” wording and imagery in place of “Christmas” wording; or the holding of Christmas plays or pageants; many allege a “War on Christmas” that has been going on for over a decade now, whereas others allege an infringement of religious freedom, or a lack of multicultural awareness at least. To be sure, the issue is weighty, if only because it involves some of our most cherished traditions of the past as well as our greatest aspirations for the future, precariously balanced upon the ideal of equality under freedom. And, some of us are undoubtedly right in saying that attempts are frequently made to remove God from public life altogether (even when government isn’t involved, so separation of church and state doesn’t apply per se), while others of us are undoubtedly right in saying that attempts are too seldom made to recognize and value the religious and cultural diversity within this great nation; diversity whose acceptance and solidarity we’ve pioneered in theory, even if not yet entirely in practice.

Having said all that though, perhaps it’s an issue we fret over simply way too much, losing sight of the spirit of the season in the process. For unlike, say, whether employers must offer health coverage that covers contraception or abortion, or when a business goes about hiring people based on characteristics or beliefs that simply aren’t relevant to the job, whether “Christmas” or “holiday” imagery and such is displayed during the season or not cannot even reasonably be alleged to be of harm to anyone, thereby immediately diminishing its importance. While separation of church and state does call for all of government to avoid any and all religious affiliations then, for instance, seriously, the display of a Nativity scene or Christmas tree just isn’t so great a concern. Likewise, neither is the choice of advertising a business puts forth, which, as a privately-owned enterprise, it’s free to do; whatever it believes it’s customers most desire to see (which of course it’ll be concerned about, if only in order to maximize profit). And, just as the choice of holiday imagery isn’t so big a deal in government, so too it is with schools, while for a given day’s pageant or party or such, parents have the option to keep their kid(s) home that day, if the planned activity goes against their family’s beliefs.

Finally, then, too, there’s the fact that Christmas has long since transcended its Christian meaning to be a secular, cultural holiday as well (even perhaps with regards to otherwise religious imagery), such that government, business, and schools’ recognition of it can be thought of as being in that non-religious capacity alone. Indeed, furthermore, much of Christmas predates any Christian or other religious affiliation altogether, while circa 1776, it wasn’t even widely celebrated–by Christians or otherwise (see the Wikipedia article “Christmas“, sec. 2)–despite the country’s founding on a “Judeo-Christian foundation”. So, it’s hardly a thoroughly religious day even in spite of the strong religious meaning that it has since acquired for many people, helping to alleviate any religious infringement concerns that may arise. Overall then, with no one-size-fits-all solution, while governments should ideally avoid religious displays; businesses should ideally show some awareness of multiculturalism; and public schools should ideally attempt both; thankfully, this is one time that nearly any course of action is okay. Ultimately, all of it should simply be in the spirit of togetherness and joy that unites our various winter holidays, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, Eid al-Fitr, Chinese New Year, Kwanzaa, or any other that I’m either not yet aware of, or at least have not mentioned here.

The real point of all this is, then, that our diverse “winter” observances are most definitely something that we needn’t be at odds over, for to be so belies the true spirit of the season. Perhaps we may eventually find it within all ourselves to worry just a little less about whatever decisions city halls, retailers, and schools arrive at with regards to recognizing the season, but even more so, perhaps we’ll all learn to exchange holiday greetings with the heart. Which is to say, without concern of whether we hear “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Holidays”, “Blessed Eid”, “Joyous Kwanzaa”, “Happy Hanukkah”, or something else … and, with nothing but genuine, warm wishes with regards to which of these we best feel like saying to others. For the holidays are not a time, really, to be political, but rather a time to stand united, even if only on this one small matter. In the unifying and magical spirit of the season then, for everyone here, around the world, and–perhaps–even across the universe, if not far beyond … perpetually speaking … Happy Holidays to all.

References: “Christmas“, at Wikipedia as of Dec. 29th, 2013
[]. “Kwanzaa“, at Wikipedia as of Dec. 29th, 2013

©2013, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.


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