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The Holiday Season

Special holiday topic

Copyright 1999, Dorian Scott Cole

The US holiday season stretches an unimaginable 35 days from Thanksgiving through New Years. For the merchants, it begins before Halloween, and for many merchants fully half of their yearly income arrives during this season. Each year as people shove and curse in crowded stores, I have to strain to see through the commercialization to the gift that is buried within. Year after year people are induced or dragged into the holiday spirit sometime during this season, and usually by December 25, even the most gnarled and cynical curmudgeon has been won over and joins the festivities. Sadly, for some, the season only amplifies their loneliness and they become depressed or even commit suicide. The season has a profound affect on all who enter in.

Each year the holidays are ushered in by Thanksgiving, summoning us like a bell toll. Thanksgiving Day we enjoy a day off, togetherness, family, friends, and a feast. These reverberate through each person reminding us of how lucky we all are. Even the homeless and the imprisoned are treated to feasts - no one goes hungry in this great nation of people.

For a moment, we all count our blessings. In this moment that is set aside for reflection, we stop chasing the buck, stop earning a living, stop fighting in the economic jungle, stop the rat-race, stop running after what we don't have, and for just a moment reflect on what we do have. If we can stop and think about it, we realize that we have a lot. During the long month of Ramadan, Muslims fast all day, which makes one think, and sensitizes compassion.

But it is difficult to escape the rat-race of life long enough to really consider our situation. The Hindus inform us that fame and fortune are worthwhile goals, but like a treadmill they are never satisfied. No matter how much you have, it is never enough. But imagine, today's paupers have more modern marvels at their disposal than any king in previous eras. If we can successfully disengage and reflect on what we have, we are thankful. I think that thankfulness helps open the heart for the days that follow.

Traditionally Santa Clause makes his appearance on Thanksgiving Day, and for a full thirty-days we anticipate Christmas. Some confuse the origins of Christmas with the New Year. They are very different celebrations. Christmas is a holiday spawned by religion, and it overflows into secular society, meaning that it is celebrated by believers and non-believers alike, just as is Halloween. Like music, the message of Christmas universally touches the soul.

The themes of Christmas are unmistakable. Goodwill toward men. Giving. Peace. It isn't a matter of which comes first, giving, peace, or goodwill - it is a contagion that spreads from person to person until all are won over. Through a simple gift, bad relationships and hard feelings are patched up - we forgive others and they forgive us and all it takes is a goodwill gesture and an open heart. Christmas is a momentary reflection of the goodness of God and the capacity of humanity to respond. It is a reminder that we can all be one brotherhood of man, a common goodwill that respects, and even enjoys, our differences - the potential exists.

Confuscious emphasized compassion toward others more than anything. To Confuscious, peace begins with a clean heart in each person, affecting the home and then the nation, and finally brings peace to all the world. Like Christ, Confuscious' way to peace was one person at a time.

But peace and goodwill carry a price. Giving. Forgiving. We must all be willing to give of ourselves. Peace requires some sacrifice - we can't all have our own way all of the time. Just as children learn to share time and playthings with others, we all have to respect the rights, needs, and wants of others, so that all can share in a fulfilling life. Muslims are prescribed to give in order to relieve financial disparity. It's difficult to give - why should we give to someone else? Sometimes we get it all in perspective. The Hindus (and Buddhists) recognize a point in life of renunciation. The person finally looks at the treadmill, and says, "Is this all there is?" And at that point begins a quest for what really matters, typically shifting focus away from himself and material possessions, until the long journey ultimately brings him to the God within, and through this he discovers himself. Or as Christ taught, you must first lose yourself to gain yourself.

Bearing gifts at Christmas is a symbol of our own willingness to give, just as God gave a baby to humanity to show His own love for us all. The message didn't arrive with armored tanks and gunships to force religion and peace onto people. The baby came as a helpless infant to draw people to peace. In this message lies the keys to a meaningful and fulfilling life for every person. While governments and religions admire the person who momentarily fights for a just cause, a meaningful and fulfilling life isn't gained with a sword and blood on your hands. Nor is meaningful and fulfilling life gained through chasing after illusion - which is the shadows of our own confusion or desires, as we are informed by the Buddhist tradition. Continuing to chase our "desires" only brings us pain and suffering. The message is the same in any religion. Meaningful life is gained through reaching out to others in selfless acts of kindness and giving - compassion, kindness, love.

Following Christmas, the Jewish holiday Hanukka, the Festival of Lights, is observed by many. It celebrates the religious triumph over a king who destroyed their Temple, and the rededication of the Temple. Justice and right prevailed over military power and evil. The Festival of Lights is celebrated for eight days, representing the miraculous eight days for which a tiny amount of nondesecrated oil burned until new oil was obtained. Hanukka is also often commemorated with giving gifts.

We should all borrow the practice of rededication at this time of year, and apply it to the message that the holidays bring so poignantly into our lives. Rededication springs from the realization that God is in the Temple and in each of us. Rededication is a cleaning of our "house" (ourselves) of things that destroy us and our relationships, and making a committment that we will try to do better in the coming year.

Trying is difficult and we often fail. The Buddhist Eight Steps emphasize dedication to knowing the right things, knowing what we want and consistently wanting that, evaluating our behavior so that we know what is driven by selfishness and charity, and steadily putting our full effort into changing ourselves. The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim periods of fasting, while emphasizing our frailty and dependence on God, teaches a strengthening self discipline. Christianity emphasizes a personal figure of God who compassionately understands our failings, forgives them so they don't trap us forever, and encourages us to begin again. 

New Years caps off the long holiday period. Like Christmas and Hanukka, it marks a time of new beginnings. We stand at the gate of the new year symbolized by father time, who is now in a diaper. We can seize this moment to start over again, fresh, and free of the mistakes that did us in in the previous year. With new resolve gained from 35 days of meaningful holidays, we can now try to avoid hurting others and making bad relationships, and live with goodwill toward others.   

The US holiday season is a wonderful time of year in which the entire world and people of all persuasions can take part, free of guilt and wrapped in goodwill, in which there is a celebration of life and new beginning.

Peace be you.

- Scott   




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