Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

Of Holy Days and Holidays

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 10, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Between the vernal equinox and the new year are more than two dozen secular and religious observances. Some, like Thanksgiving and the winter solstice, are clearly secular; although there may be religious observances connected to them. Some, such as the birth of Baha`u`llah, the founder of the Baha`i faith, and Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Mohammed’s grandson for the Shia and Moses’ fast after the escape from Egypt for Sunnis, or the Jewish Hannukah, are clearly religious. Others seem to straddle the religious and the secular. Halloween, for instance is celebrated as a day of costuming and trick-or-treating by a great many people of all faiths and beliefs, but is also the Christian All Hallows Eve followed by All Saints Day; in the same way, there is, in the United States certainly, a large commercial and secular celebration of Christmas that has little but the name to connect it to the Western Christian Holy Day (Orthodox Christmas isn’t until the first week in January).
A significant number of the religious holy days are celebrations of birth or death. In addition to All Hallows Day (which honors the dead) and the Baha`i birthday celebrations (in addition to Baha`u`llah there is also the birthday of the Bab, founder of the Babi, a precursor to Baha`i) and Christmas, there are the birthday of Guru Nawak and the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahador in the Sikh faith, and the Ascension of Abou`l-Bahar in the Baha`i.
Other observances concern specific events in the history of specific faiths. Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day, which is the day that Prince Gautama took his seat under the Bodhi tree, where he would receive the enlightenment and awaken spiritually as the Buddha. The Baha`i celebrate the Day of the Covenant. Early November gives us New Year in the Muslim calendar and Bandi Chhor Divas, the liberation of the 6th Guru and the 52 Kings in the Sikh.
A significant number of observances and holidays have a connection to nature, the passage of time, and to beginnings and endings; and often cross secular and religious lines. New Year’s Day in the common calendar is celebrated the first day of January, a month named after the Roman God Janus, who had two faces and could look backward and forward at the same time. At the same time, the Shinto celebrate Gantan-Sai by saying prayers for inner renewal, prosperity and health. The Hindu celebration of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, honors the human urge to move toward the light, even as the northern hemisphere moves toward its darkest days. Also, of course, there is the Pagan Yule at the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. Pagan celebrations also coincide with Halloween with Samhain in the northern hemisphere signifying beginnings and endings and the remembrance of the dead; and Beltaine in the southern hemisphere signifying the conjoining of the God and Goddess, and the beginning of creation.
All of these things are excellent reasons to celebrate. Even those who espouse no spiritual or religious beliefs at all can recognize that we humans are tied biologically, psychologically, and emotionally to the natural rhythms of the planet and the universe and find useful, even inspirational, metaphors in this season. The Fall has long signified old age, the fading of the light, and of life. After the solstice we begin to see through the Winter the return of the light, the preparation for the rebirth and renewal that come with the Spring.
The point of all this is not simply the number of celebrations or the common themes that run through them. That’s important and points to how much we humans have in common, how much we are all alike. This is true all year long. You can pick any time of year and find just as many instances of secular and religious holy days, holidays and observances that will make the same point. But soon we will begin to see people arguing about what to call this time of year. We will once again be told that “Happy Holidays” is an attack on Christianity, that the birth of Christ is the only legitimate “reason for the season.” This is the point I want to address.
This nation, and the world, is full of good reasons to celebrate. The simple recognition of that fact does not diminish the specialness or significance of any specific celebration. If you are a Christian and wish to greet other Christians by saying “Merry Christmas,” then do so. If you choose not to acknowledge the celebrations of non-Christians, then don’t. You will be the less for it. But when those who do wish to recognize the fullness and diversity of the season say “Happy Holidays,” that does not steal anything from you. There is enough love and good will and humanity to go around and to celebrate. And all these holidays and holy days are supposed to be celebrations of the best of us.
This year, let us not worry so much about what we call the season and think, instead, about how we are going to live it; and beyond that about how we can take the best lessons of the season forward into our lives in the new year. That would really be something to celebrate.

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