Winter Festivals Across Many Faiths

Like my Unitarian Universalist faith, my family’s beliefs and holiday practices have always been a little eclectic. We UUs don’t really have any holidays unique to our faith. The closest, I guess, would be the week of Chalica, but other than on its page of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s website, I have never heard it mentioned nor known a UU whose family or church holds any kind of Chalica celebration. As most UUs do, I’ve spent most of my life celebrating most Christian holidays that are both a part of American culture and Unitarian Universalist theological heritage.

Photo by blmiers2 on flickr.

Growing up, my immediate family was neither Christian nor Jewish, yet every year until I was about ten years old, we celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah. Now, as I’m older and a little more socially aware, I’m not sure how ethically appropriate this all was; cultural misappropriation is an insidious effect of the structural racism and xenophobia that surrounds us, and although it was never our intent, I think my family’s casual forays in to Judaism may have crossed the line a little bit. I am sure, however, that our intent was good and pure – my parents wanted to expose me to cultures and ideas other than their own, and some of my favorite holiday memories come from our rather untypical celebrations.

I haven’t ever really believed in the dogmatic or supernatural aspects of any religion, but the winter holidays I have celebrated have always been a bright spot in winters both happy and sad. In fact, my experiences have proved to me that the import ance of celebrating holidays isn’t really in their theological significance, but their power to, in a time that for half the world is literally cold and dark, bring together family,  friends, and neighbors to celebrate our traditions and one another.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, typically seen as the beginning of American “holiday season.” Last week Sana wrote about the Hindu festival of Diwali, a five-day festival falling in October or November of each year and celebrating the “inner light that wins over spiritual darkness.” Diwali is also celebrated by Jains and Sikhs in India, taking on an interfaith message of shared celebration and joy. Worldwide and across many different religions, celebrations of bounty, forgiveness, and light come in the wintertime. African Americans of many faiths celebrate the holiday of Kwanzaa, created in 1966 by professor and activist Maulana Karenga. Kwanzaa celebrates black cultural heritage in North America, and the principles of umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective responsibility), ujamaa (co-operative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith), through a week of gift-giving, sharing libations, honoring elders, and lighting nightly candles on a kinara, the Kwanzaa candelabra.

On December 8th, Buddhists worldwide will celebrate Bodhi Day, a holiday commemorating the day that the Buddha achieved enlightenment, meditating under a Pipul tree until he could understand the nature and root of suffering. To observe Bodhi day, some Buddhists decorate their homes with lights of many colors, representing the many paths to enlightenment, while many meditate together and share a meal of milk and rice, which the Buddha ate after his time at the Pipul Tree. About a month ago, on the 26th of October, Muslims celebrated the holiday of Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham’s steadfast faith and willingness to sacrifice his son to god. Eid al-Adha is typically observed through a special prayer service, where fine clothing is often worn, and through the sacrifice of an animal (often a cow or goat) which is divided in to parts to be shared with friends and neighbors and with the poor or hungry.

Often, we are caught up in the busy time of the year’s end, or the difficulty of the cold and sometimes difficult winter. Yet, each of these holidays serves as a reminder of the hope and joy of the time, and offer a time to share what we have with family, community, and friends. Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto wrote in her article “Why Do We Have So Many Winter Holidays,”

So at this time of year, when the celebrations of so many different traditions converge, we can use this convergence to remember why we are celebrating: because we are connected to the earth. Because we are connected to family, and friends, and strangers. Because we are grateful that whatever we honor as holy was born and lives on. Because in the darkness we want to remember the resurgence of light and joy. Because we want to remember the principles that anchor us in the religion we were born into, or chose, or both.

Happy holidays to all of IYA’s readers and authors!

What holidays or traditions will you celebrate this winter?


8 responses to “Winter Festivals Across Many Faiths

  1. I’m quite ashamed to say that the term cultural appropriation has been foreign to me until I read your article. Now, I find that it’s a term I’ve been searching for quite awhile. I have grown up in an interfaith household, so therefore I’ve been ‘safe’ in terms of practicing Christian and Jewish observances, but I have been hesitant when it comes to exploring other cultures as I’ve been unsure how to pay proper respect. I think its a true sign of respect and connection when one forays into a proper culture with the intention of learning, experiencing, and understanding, even more so when so many cultures share similar roots. Thank you for bringing this up! Wonderful post!

    • Thank you 🙂 I’ve been learning a lot about cultural appropriation recently, too. I think it’s often difficult, especially for people with a lot of structural privilege, to tell when a line has been crossed. It’s been pretty confusing or difficult for me, especially in terms of interfaith action and some of the traditions and rituals UUs use, to tell if something is ok or not. The Rookie Mag article I linked to is a great primer, and the comment section is really good, too.

      • I love Rookie Mag, but I hadn’t come across this gem. It’s really a well written article. I think the best way to improve respect for culture is to make others aware when they cross the line, and invite them to try a different way of exploring a culture. The difficulty comes when you’re on your own, and you have to decide for yourself.

  2. First of all, congrats to Richelle for the research and investigation that she has done regarding spiritual searching during winter time. Yes, many groups use the brightness of light, perhaps with candles, to push away darkness of environment, or perhaps, mood. It IS important to retain hope and happiness during the season. One of our recent UUFJC sermons was given by Nancy Tanner-Theis on “Walking in the Dark”. Her message was basically that we should welcome a time in this season that allows us to relax within the dark; it can be a time that gives us the opportunity to “be not afraid”, to learn that the dark can be a place and time for us to understand the universe and ourselves better. I found her comments to be supportive and during the coming holiday season, I will celebrate but not be afraid of the darkness. Richelle’s comments and mine coincide, I think, in contemplating how we can celebrate in various ways during the holiday season.

    • Thank you, Patt! That sounds like a really interesting sermon; I agree, I think, with the gist of it, too. We must learn to cope and be content with hardship, as well as finding ways to celebrate despite it.

  3. Richelle, you wrote an invigorating essay. From your links, I learned about “Chalica” (sang along with the YouTubes) and “Cultural appropriation.” Also, I liked the brief paragraphs describing various faiths. Keep these informative essays coming our way. Thanks.

    • Thanks Betty! I’ll be sure to keep the church updated on my writing. You can also subscribe to the blog so you get an email automatically for each post, even when I forget to send a link to the UU listserv 🙂

  4. Thanks for this great post Richelle. I was thinking about it all weekend. I agree, I think that winter holidays exist to provide that bright spot during a season of darkness w/ very little light. I especially love the solstice bonfires that some communities host around this time- especially the stories that are told around the fire and accompanied with delicious hot chocolate. Even though I grew up Muslim, my family still celebrated Christmas with a Christmas tree, presents and ice-skating. I think there’s something special when people explore and celebrate other holidays with appreciation/respect for other beliefs. For me it’s a great example of pluralism.

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