I took a bit of vacation this week, and so this week’s column updated and adapted material from one published on Dec. 20, 2003.
If an alien dropped in on us right now, he (she? it?) would find us sorting through the remnants of holidays stacked up for more than a month: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s. (We’re not quite finished yet. The Christian feast of Epiphany is Jan. 6.)
Our other-worldly visitor might think all these festivities shared a common origin, that they were only variations on the theme of brightening dark and cold nights, of finding comfort in the winter chill as we wait for spring’s eventual return.
But he (she? it?) would be wrong. Similarities and even shared traditions don’t mean these holidays are the same. (A movie star and I share a birthday and we both eat cake, but that doesn’t make us brother and sister.)
For instance: Christmas – the Christian celebration, not the social and economic spectacle – marks the birth of Jesus Christ in a Palestinian village around the year 4 B.C.
Hanukkah, the Jewish “festival of lights,” observes the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after it was recovered from Greek occupiers in 165 B.C. The feast lasts eight nights because the story says that after the victory, a small vial of oil miraculously provided light for that length of time.
The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, marks the northern hemisphere’s turn toward spring as days start to lengthen again. The anticipation of warmer weather was reason enough to celebrate in ancient societies, and among pagans these seasonal changes took on religious significance.
Not surprisingly, with the rise of the Christian church in Europe, seasonal rites as such were abandoned or reinterpreted with Christian teachings. But in our more diverse time, solstice is making a comeback.
Then there’s Kwanzaa, a modern American invention, created during the 1960s as a week-long celebration of African culture and heritage.
You get the idea: similar timing, similar observances (gifts and candles galore), but vastly different meanings.
These various holidays don’t only mark different events. As a local theologian points out, they also reflect different ways of thinking about the world and how it works. The contrasts are especially noticeable when we compare holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, which claim unique historical events as their basis, with the solstice, which marks a recurring natural cycle.
“I think you can argue that those who celebrate solstice understand time to be cyclical,” according to Philip Kenneson, professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College. That is, a pagan view sees time like a wheel, constantly revolving alongside the cycles of nature.
It’s an idea about the world shared by ancient pagan societies and many Eastern religions. In this view, “any particular moment in time is not any more important than another,” Kenneson said. “There’s no sense of movement to history.”
By contrast, Judaism and Christianity – the religions most influential in Western cultures – typically view history as an unfolding “story” made up of unique events. In this view, said Kenneson, time takes on a different kind of significance.
“History as we understand it in the West is rooted in a more linear view of time,” he said. “Specific events have meaning. They contribute to or thwart a certain movement in history.”
While he won’t go so far as to call this a biblical view of time, he does say “a lot of this is assumed in Jewish and Christian understanding.”
There is overlap, of course. Christians and Jews observe natural cycles – look at the church calendar or the Jewish feasts – and those who observe the solstice don’t deny that new events occur.
Even so, Kenneson thinks a fundamental difference exists between those who find meaning mainly in the recurring cycles of nature and those who find it in a developing story.
“Those cycles by themselves don’t tell the whole story. They are real, but they don’t shape our whole lives,” Kenneson said. “(In the linear view) there’s something above and beyond that. The direction of history has been forever altered.”
Maybe that’s why we wish each other a happy new year. We not only anticipate the year to be different. We expect it to be literally meaningful – to truly mean something.
First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 Jan 2010.