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What do we do about holidays?

By Michelle Richards

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Christmas and Easter are quintessential Christian holidays that most Unitarian Universalist families celebrate in their own fashion, and in a way that generally fits their theology. People who share a Jewish heritage may celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah. Muslims have high holy days, too—particularly Eid al-Fitr, which commemorates the end of Ramadan. Hindus have a festival of light they call Divali, and many Buddhists celebrate Buddha’s birthday or the day he is believed to have reached enlightenment.

Name a religious tradition, and you’ll find that there are special holidays or holy days associated with it. But not ours. Sometimes it seems as if all the holidays we UUs celebrate derive from some other religious tradition! But how do we build a value of Unitarian Universalist identity in our children if all we do is convert the holidays of other faiths into ones we can support?

There may not be a single, solitary religious celebration that currently exists for all Unitarian Universalist families to celebrate. (Some UUs have started celebrating Chalica in early December, to celebrate the UUA’s Seven Principles, or holding Sources Suppers, which celebrate the UUA’s Six Sources.) But there are holidays—some of which seem exclusively secular on the surface—that merit celebration because they fit our values and our Principles. We can claim these holidays as particularly meaningful to our faith and add a religious element to them if we choose to do so. For instance, Martin Luther King Day (January 18) is a holiday that focuses upon service to others. Since social justice is a spiritual practice for so many Unitarian Universalists, intentionally commemorating this holiday as a family lifts up the value we place upon helping others.

There are other opportunities to celebrate occasions, people, and events that are important to us. And while it would be rather burdensome to celebrate them all, as Unitarian Universalists we can see such celebrations as opportunities to express our individual family beliefs and guiding values. (See Meg Cox’s UU World article, “New Family Traditions,” for a good guide to creating your own family rituals.)

Darwin Day (February 12) is not exclusively for Unitarian Universalists, for instance, but its celebration of the wonder of science meshes well with our beliefs: We often turn to science and reason for inspiration as well as holy books and sacred texts. And then, of course, there’s Earth Day (April 22). While Unitarian Universalists pride themselves on being “green” all year round, we can make a special effort on this day to celebrate the gains we have made in the areas of conservation and environmental protection while at the same time recognizing how far we have yet to go.

Then there is John Murray Day, celebrated on or around September 30, a time when Unitarian Universalist families can celebrate the arrival of Universalist John Murray on the New Jersey shore. His Universalist message of a loving God who would not damn anyone to hell—the idea of universal salvation—caught fire in America and the rest (they say) is history.

If we want to give our children a special sense of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, we may want to add some holidays like these into the mix. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call them holy days. Whether they are national days of service, ways of commemorating environmental protection efforts, celebrating science or our Unitarian Universalist heritage—families can affirm their shared beliefs by the special days they choose to celebrate together.

For my family, the most meaningful holy day of the year is celebrated on the evening of the Winter Solstice, December 21. We call it the Longest Night, and we observe it by not using electric lights or other electricity (besides heating) after sundown. It helps us to remember how important the sunlight was to our northern European ancestors and how the shorter days and longer nights made daily living a challenge.

How do the holidays your family celebrates reflect your UU values and identity? What holiday traditions have you developed or adopted?

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