by Mitchell Clute
Celebrate the ties that bind
Almost every culture in the world celebrates a major holiday at this time of year, and most have avoided the chaos and commercialization our culture associates with this season by remembering what made these rituals and celebrations important in the first place — self-renewal, strengthening of family and community ties and honoring the Earth's natural cycles at a time when days can be short and nights can be cold.
By looking at the ways other cultures, both ancient and modern, regularly mark this time of year, we can find ways to reinvigorate our own holiday traditions — either by borrowing from others or simply by reflecting on what the holiday season should mean and how to make that wish a reality.
Perhaps we'll find that the richness we're looking for has always been there, hidden in events that we don't even think of as rituals. John Davis, a transpersonal psychologist and faculty member at Naropa University, says: "There's a natural human wisdom even in our commercialized holidays... There is ritual that nourishes people."
Even the gift-giving we practice can seem more meaningful if we simply remember why we're giving in the first place. "Before you shop," Davis says, "take a minute to consider what the gift recipient means to you and why you're buying them a present." Just stopping to consider why we do what we do can bring a deeper sense of awareness of our holiday traditions.
Observing the Solstice
People need more than to understand their obligations to one another and to Earth; they also need the feelings of such obligations. —Wendell Berry
It's no wonder our ancestors, who lived at the mercy of the elements, were so aware of the winter solstice — the point in the year when the days begin to lengthen again, heralding the coming spring. Cultures around the world mark this occasion.
At Newgrange, a megalithic site in Ireland estimated to be 5,000 years old, a huge circular stone was positioned so that a shaft of light would penetrate the central chamber on the winter solstice. Half a world away and 4,000 years later, the ancient Pueblo Indians also constructed a site that marked the solstices, this one at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
The winter solstice continues to be an important holiday for the Hopi and Tewa people of the American Southwest. The Hopi holiday called Soyal, a sixteen-day period surrounding the solstice, celebrates creation and rebirth and welcomes the return of the sun. It includes rituals of purification and offerings of corn and tobacco and ends with a feast and blessing.
One aspect of celebration often missing from American culture but vividly present in other traditional cultures is a respect for the processes of nature, on which survival often depends. The Hopi prayer to the Great Spirit honors nature: Make my hands respect the things you have made and my eyes sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people. Let me learn lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
The Tewa people also celebrate the winter solstice, calling it Thantha, "the time when the sun stays put." Ester Martinez, a Tewa elder, says the value of sharing permeated her culture when she was young. "You gain friends who may be strangers that you have fed," she says, "and you also gain luck."
The winter solstice is significant in Persian culture as well, where it is called Yalda, a word meaning "birth." Before the Persians, the ancient Babylonians also marked the solstice as the day when the sun gains its victory over darkness. Historically, one of the themes of this festival was a temporary subversion of usual social order: The king changed places with ordinary people, and for one day the masters served their servants, reflecting the belief that the order of creation came out of chaos. Elements of this tradition were eventually adopted in Rome where, on the solstice, rich and poor were equal, grudges were forgotten and debts forgiven.
What might these ancient festivals mean in today's society? All these traditions — along with the familiar celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa — stress the need to help others and to honor both members of our community and the Earth. There are countless ways to make our holidays more inclusive: volunteer to serve in a soup kitchen, bring food or gifts to those who have no family, or donate to a charitable organization.
Just as important as these outward acts is the feeling behind them — the love, gratitude and compassion that are the true spirit of the holidays. By honoring the sun's rebirth, we also make our own rebirth possible, connecting to what Carl Jung calls "the creative power of our own soul."
Around the World in a Holiday
Dwelling is not primarily inhabiting but taking care of and creating that space within which something comes into its own and flourishes. —Martin Heidegger
Solstice rituals are one way to reconnect with the rhythm of life and with the Earth, bringing deeper meaning to the season. But they're not the only holidays celebrated by cultures to mark this time of year. Around the world, the winter season is one of celebrations focused on renewal and reaffirmation, stretching from Diwali, the Indian festival of lights in November, to Hanukkah in December, to the Persian New Year celebration Nawruz on the spring equinox in March.
Though some holidays are ancient, others are modern adaptations of older observances. A good example is Kwanzaa, the contemporary African-American holiday based on African harvest festivals. Celebrated the week immediately following Christmas, Kwanzaa stresses principles of unity, self-determination, cooperation, responsibility, creativity and faith, and marks a conscious effort to celebrate the accomplishments of a larger community.
Nilima Kumar, born in India but currently a resident of New Jersey, says that while many of the rituals associated with Diwali also stress family and community, the celebration begins with a moment of self-purification. "In South India," she says, "you rise before sunrise and take a sandalwood-powder bath for spiritual cleansing." Later, friends exchange sweets, dine together, then fill the house with candles and join together in prayer.
In many cultures, holiday ceremonies center around honoring one's culture and ancestors. Guillermo Quiroga, a Native American of the Yaqui tribe who lives in Tucson, Ariz., says his tribe still performs traditional dances and sings in their native tongue on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Though the Yaqui have incorporated elements of Catholicism into holiday celebration, they haven't abandoned their ancient traditions. "The elders say our ancestors gave us these dances and said this is what you must do to honor these things," Quiroga says. "Every morning we offer our prayers to the east because the elders gave this to us and we have no choice but to honor them. These songs and melodies have been passed down for hundreds of years."
Though we may have forgotten our ancient cultural traditions, we all participate in rituals, such as family stories passed from one generation to the next. If our personal store of ritual seems thin, we can give meaning to celebrations by reflecting on how our ancestors may have celebrated, says Davis. "Our parents and grandparents — what did the holidays mean to them? Go back a hundred years. What was the meaning then? Go back a thousand years, or ten thousand, and imagine — what would this season have meant to these ancestors?"
It isn't difficult to bring an element of ritual to all our holiday celebrations. "I encourage people to start simple; be playful, even," Davis says. "It can be little things like lighting a candle at dinner and saying a few words about the day or season, or taking a few minutes to sit down by oneself or with others to remember why you're celebrating." If you do volunteer work or give to charitable causes, be mindful of the reasons for your choice: Ask yourself, why am I doing this? What do I want to express?
By consciously taking the time to invigorate our holiday rituals, we can perhaps give our own traditions the depth and vibrancy reflected in celebrations from around the world, while still retaining our familiar stories and traditions. This in turn might allow us to make a deeper connection with our Earth, our families and, ultimately, ourselves.
Mitchell Clute is a journalist/poet whose work appears in a variety of national publications.