During our calendar year, we have many holidays that we recognize and celebrate. Celebrations have always been a part of the many cultures and religious traditions throughout the world. It seems to be in our DNA as human and spiritual beings that we find ways to celebrate. As I have been thinking of this topic, I believe we have three major reasons we create occasions to celebrate. First, it is our nature to have fun and to be happy, and celebrations are one way to have fun and celebrate joy. Celebrating joy is a primary spiritual practice in Unity. Our uplifting messages, Greg’s music and our time together enhances our sense of joy. When we feel joy, we feel connected to our Spirit, to the beauty of life and to one another.Secondly, celebrations connect us to others and help build community. We celebrate occasions with family and friends and within organizations we belong to. Celebrations such as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays are significant and give meaning to our lives.
And, celebrations are often a recognition of history as we honor individuals, groups of people and events that have made a positive impact in our lives and our world community.
As I highlight the celebrations of this season, I am going to talk about some of the history of the holiday celebrations, which I hope you will find interesting. I learned some new things from my research. And, I invite us to explore how we might find more spiritual meaning in the ways we celebrate and also celebrate with a consciousness of service to the people we care about and to the benefit of our wider community…our Fifth Unity Principle.
I am going to start with Halloween. Why Halloween? Because Halloween is truly fun! Halloween was and is my son’s favorite holiday. Growing up, Halloween gave him the opportunity to use his creative mind. There wasn’t anything that he enjoyed more than creating his own costume. We lived in a neighborhood where people decorated the outside of their homes and served cider or witches brew on their front porches. So, Halloween was a way to feel connected in our community. My son still loves Halloween and is delighted to celebrate with his wife and two children as they create costumes and have fun playing with new identities. He still receives awards for his costumes, as he did when he was a boy.
Although Halloween is a secular holiday in the United States, it has spiritual roots. In many countries, All Saints Eve also called All Hollows’ Eve became Halloween. All Hollos’ Eve is celebrated on Oct 31, remembering those who have passed, including saints. The word hollow is a synonym for saint. Celebrants attend church and light candles on the graves of their loved ones or create altars to honor their memory, closely related to the Day of the Dead celebrated in Hispanic cultures. Historically, Samhain (sow-in), a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season also begins celebration on Oct 31. Samhain is and was widely observed throughout Ireland and Scotland, and it is believed that the Scottish and Irish brought Halloween customs to America in the 19th century, and the holiday evolved from there as a celebration for many, although there are some religions that do not celebrate Halloween here in our country. I would like to share that at one time in the communities I have lived in, Trick or Treaters carried UNICEF donation boxes so they could collect money for children supported by UNICEF, the UN organization that helps disadvantaged children all over the world. This was and could be a way for our young people to make a difference for other children while also having fun.
Our tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving of course begins with the story of the Plymouth colonists called Pilgrims from the Mayflower who reportedly shared a meal with Wampanoag Native Americans in 1621 as a way of celebrating the autumn harvest after surviving a previous harsh winter. This is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. It also needs to be acknowledged that this narrative is not told from the Native Americans perspective and many take issue with how the Thanksgiving story is presented to the American public, and especially stereotypically to schoolchildren. We need to be mindful of our history and be respectful in how we view the gifts of our Native American brothers and sisters. Historians have noted that many cultures from ancient times have commemorated the fall harvest with feasting and celebrations including Native Americans long before Europeans set foot on America’s shores. Thanksgiving also bears a resemblance to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, which is still celebrated in some Jewish communities.
In many ways, as we become less of an agricultural nation, we have lost our connection with the earth, but there is certainly value in finding ways to connect with our earth and connect with thankfulness for the bounty of our blessings.
As we gather with family and friends for this season, we eat foods that are indigenous to the Americas namely turkey, potatoes, green beans, corn, squash, cranberries and pumpkin pie and this tradition is always something to look forward to.
Of course, we can practice gratitude everyday as a spiritual practice. When we are consciously grateful for our blessings, we attract good to ourselves and others, and that energy of Thanksgiving can transform our world. On Thanksgiving, when we are with loved ones, we can truly be present with them and share out loud how we feel blessed by their presence in our lives and for all our abundant blessings. Taking a deep, mindful breath in the midst of all the preparation, praying together and expressing true gratitude from our hearts. This intention of being present in our gratitude with ourselves and those we are with, I believe, is how we experience the spiritual meaning of Thanksgiving.
Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Grant all proclaimed a day to celebrate Thanksgiving. You know the history of these men, but have you ever heard of Sarah Hale? A little known fact is Sarah Hale was once called the Mother of Thanksgiving. She was a prolific American writer, activist, and influential editor in the 1800’s. Interestingly, she wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb in a collection of poems for children, but that has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. She is most well known for her campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. For 36 years, she published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians, advocating for a National Day of Thanksgiving. When she died, she was living in Philadelphia and a blue historical marker with her name and story, I learned, exists on Spruce St in Philadelphia. It took until 1941 for Franklin D Roosevelt to sign legislation creating Thanksgiving as a national holiday on the fourth Thursday of every November in the United States.
In addition to blessing our family and friends and perhaps inviting others who may not have a place to celebrate Thanksgiving, there are numerous ways we can be of service to others in this Thanksgiving season. We can contribute to the Food Bank for food insecure families and donate non-perishable foods as we are doing here at our Unity Center. We can donate our time at places where people are served a Thanksgiving meal such as Salvation Army. We can make a donation on this Giving Tuesday, this next Tuesday, as charitable giving to an organization that helps individuals and families have quality of life. These are some of the ways we can be of service in the Thanksgiving season. As we express thankfulness for our blessings, we can be a blessing.
I want to give a highlight to the Jewish holiday, Hanukah, which begins at sundown on November 28, a week from today. The Jewish calendar for commemorations and holidays is a lunar calendar with each month beginning on the new moon so the date of the Hanukah holiday can shift from year to year. It often falls on a date in December. Hanukah is an eight-day “Festival of Lights,” celebrated with a nightly Menorah lighting combined with recited prayers of blessings and songs. The Menorah is a nine branched candle holder. Eight of the candles are lit as the week progresses to symbolize the eight nights of the holiday. The historical significance is a commemoration of the time in the second century BCE when a small band of Jews were able to defeat a Greek mighty army and reclaim their land and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicate it to God. When they sought to light the Temple’s Menorah which was then 7 branches, they found only a small amount of oil. They lit the Menorah with enough oil for a day, but miraculously the oil lasted eight days. And, this is the religious symbolism of the eight days of celebration. Traditional Hanukah foods are served, and traditional games are played. Gifts are often exchanged, and children are given Hanukah gelt which can be is a gift of money or chocolate gold coins. It is a tradition in the Hanukah season to give to charity with a donation, and children and adults are encouraged to a good deed in some way.
Christmas is celebrated every year on December 25th. Numerous cultures have long celebrated the winter season with festivals. The winter solstice is celebrated in December throughout the world as the days become longer and the return of light is celebrated. In the times of Roman rule, a popular festival called the Saturnalia was celebrated in mid-December honoring the agricultural god, Saturn. In the time of the early Christians, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated until the fourth century when Pope Julius the First chose December 25th for the church to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. This celebration was first called the Feast of the Nativity. Choosing the date at the same time as the fun- filled winter festivities, church leaders anticipated Christmas would be popularly embraced by the pagan culture. Many of the traditions of ancient winter festivals are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas. What we know as Christmas spread to most of the world by the end of the sixth century. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas as we now know it. Christmas has been a national holiday in the United States since 1870 when Grant was the 18th President.
Christmas is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural celebration, observed with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. On Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth born 2,00 years ago. The profound healing and spiritual teachings of Jesus formed the core of Christianity. Jesus taught and exemplified love, forgiveness, inclusion and acceptance of one another. In Unity, we revere Jesus as our Way Shower. On Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the rebirth of the Christ light within each of us. During the advent Sundays, we celebrate the divine gifts of faith and hope, peace, love, and joy. I love the Unity Christmas ritual that our spiritual leader, Sandy, leads every Christmas season here at our Unity Center as we light a successive Advent candle each Sunday to represent the spiritual gifts of hope, peace, love and joy. We can look forward to Sandy’s services in December when she will present a series on nature and the Advent season. I personally enjoy the Christmas spirit of beauty, generosity and excitement that I feel in the Christmas season.
We know the popular customs of Christmas include exchanging gifts, decorating with lights and evergreens which symbolize eternal life including Christmas trees, attending church services, singing Christmas carols, making Christmas cookies, sending holiday cards, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus, otherwise known as Saint Nicholas. St. Nicholas was a most well- loved saint in Europe because of his magnanimous generosity. In 1882, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister wrote a poem to his daughters named a visit from St Nicholas which is now popularly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Moore’s poem became our modern image of Santa, although I am pretty sure that was not his intention. In the 19th century, images of jolly Santa were widely used for America’s businesses to advertise during the Christmas holidays….the beginning of the consumerism of Christmas.
I believe Christmas is a time to be generous with others who have less than we do. There are many organizations we can donate to help families in need. Dan and I buy gifts for our grandchildren, but are conscious that just as we celebrate birthdays with people we love, love and attention is the most treasured gift, and a gift that lasts forever. My favorite gift to give family and friends is a subscription of the Unity Daily Word, a gift that gives and gives all year long everyday. The gift we can give ourselves is to slow down in the bustle and busyness of the holiday season and go inward to be with our spiritual essence and Christ consciousness….to be intentional in setting times for meditation, contemplation and renewal of our divine light and spirit.
Finally, before I finish the topic of Celebration in this holiday season, I want to give some attention to Kwanzaa, an African American holiday that affirms African and African American, and is celebrated in addition to Christmas by many African Americans. It is celebrated from December 26 to January 1. Kwanzaa was created and encouraged in 1966 by a professor of Africana studies at California State University. It began in the United States and has come to be celebrated in other countries where there are large descendants of Africans. Each day is dedicated to one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith. On each day, families and communities light one of the seven candles of red, green and black and discuss the principle for that day, red representing the struggle, black the people and green for the future. The holiday concludes with a feast on the last day with African inspired foods, and festivities can include music, drumming, dancing and sharing of writings and poetry. My son is bi-racial African American. When he was growing up, we didn’t celebrate Kwanzaa specifically, but we found ways to honor the value and strengths of his ancestry which celebrates spirit.
Finally, in a few sentences I want to touch on New Year’s which is celebrated throughout the world to look back over the last year and look forward to the New Year with new possibilities. At Unity, we have a tradition which Sandy leads on the first Sunday of the New Year with the burning bowl ceremony, writing and burning what we want to let go of and the next Sunday meditating and writing what we want to strive for in the New Year on our spiritual journey. They both are meaningful ceremonies that we can look forward to.
So, I hope you enjoyed the journey that you took with me this morning of the holidays that are celebrated this time of the year. I wish you and yours many blessings. And, may we be a blessing!