The signs of the holiday season are everywhere. The festive lights adorning our homes and trees, the bustling stores and shopping malls, the ubiquitous commercials reminding us we have gifts to buy.
That’s all fine, but the meaning of the season is much deeper, of course.
Even after a year full of headlines about injustices, tragedies, bloodshed and disasters, the spirit of the season shines regardless of religion. Faith — whether it is faith in a creator or faith that human kindness will prevail — makes it possible.
Our human instinct to help those in need guides our faith, and our giving nature is amplified during the Christmas and holiday season, said Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Austin Catholic Diocese.
For Christians, a generous spirit means respect for all, including immigrants and people of different faiths.
Non-Christian faiths may not celebrate Christmas, but many share the meaning of the holiday season.
During the Jewish Festival of Lights celebration — known as Chanukkah or Hanukkah — Jews are reminded of hope, perseverance, unique identity and being thankful for miracles, said Rabbi Rebecca Epstein of Congregation Beth Israel.
Muslim followers of Islam use the Christmas season to come together and share time with family, said Mohamed-Umer Esmail, imam of Nueces Mosque in Austin. “We may have different beliefs, but we can all agree that the spirit of the season is generosity,” he said.
Faith leaders in our communities agree, as their responses to our questions on the meaning of the season reveal:
What is the meaning of Christmas?
• Imam Esmail: Christmas is about giving and families coming together, just like the Muslim Eid celebrations. Though mainstream Muslims do not celebrate it, we do respect it and try to embody the values that we all agree on by being generous and cheerful to all.
• Rabbi Epstein: I love the message that the birth of each child brings hope into the world. I also love the message of the Christmas story that encourages hospitality and caring for others.
• Huston-Tillotson University chaplain, the Rev. Donald E. Brewington: It’s the celebration of God’s gift to humanity and a reminder of that gift giving of himself for the sake of every individual human person on earth, calling forth in every human to give of themselves for the sake of every neighbor he/she encounters, thereby bringing love, joy and peace to the world.
What message unites us at this time of year?
Imam Mohamed-Umer Esmail: Generosity, empathy and reaching out to those less-privileged.
• Rabbi Rebecca Epstein: Many winter festivals, including Chanukkah, incorporate light as a symbol. Because it is a dark season, the light of the holiday season reminds us symbolically to always create light, even in the darkness.
How is the message of the season unique to your congregation?
• Hospice specialist at Kindred Hospice, the Rev. Remington Johnson: Many of my patients and families join in those cultural feelings of gratefulness and a desire to think of those around them. What is unique with patients walking with a life-limiting illness is that the effects of their illness remind them that they are mortal. It can be common for these patients and their loved ones to feel a sense of anticipatory loss despite still having time on this earth.
• Rabbi Epstein: Chanukkah celebrates the story of Jewish victory over the Greco-Syrians. The Jewish fighters, called the Maccabees, stood up for their unique ways of life, because the Greco-Syrians tried to make them assimilate. Therefore, Chanukkah reminds us to appreciate our own culture and traditions, as well as to remember that others deserve to be able to preserve their own unique ways of life.
How does the meaning of the season in the U.S. differ from other parts of the world?
• Rev. Brewington: I would say that in the U.S. it is much more commercialized; people give gifts — but I am not convinced that it is always for the “right” reason. Giving during the Christ Season in the U.S. is more of an expectation rather than an act of genuine love and thankful reflection on God’s precious gift to humanity.
• Rabbi Epstein: In the United States, the fact that Chanukkah occurs in the same season as Christmas has resulted in Jews taking on the tradition of giving gifts for Christmas. Gift-giving was not traditionally a major part of Chanukkah. This is somewhat ironic given that Chanukkah celebrates being counter-cultural.
How do you encourage your congregation to embody the spirit of the season?
• Imam Esmail: (I) ask they embody the same spirit of generosity, empathy, and reaching out to others.
• Rev. Brewington: (I) ask they reflect on the reason for the season, that is God Incarnate in the person of Jesus the Christ, to think more of others than you do of yourself and to remember that the greatest gift you can give to anyone is the gift of self.
• Rev. Johnson: I encourage my patients and their loved ones to use these holiday preparations and moments to make intentional decisions about what is important to them — and to rest into those soft moments of reflection where they can celebrate a life well-lived and recognize little moments of hope and joy around them.