You’ve seen one holiday, you’ve seen them all. Not so much.

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.

Christmas in 30 seconds (give or take a minute)

If someone asked you what people should keep in mind this Christmas – and you had about 30 seconds to answer – what would you say?

That’s the question I asked several Christian leaders in Johnson City, Tenn. While their replies touch on familiar themes, they also offer insights that are eye-opening and often challenging.

So what shall we remember at Christmas? Here’s what they said.

“Keep in mind the importance of relationships. Relationship is the key. This summarizes the commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor. The basis for my answer comes from Luke 3, when three groups of people asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’ The simple answer is that relationships to others is the key.”

Anietie Akata, pastor, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church

“In some way focus on the fact it is (Jesus’) day, not our day, and do all the things we need to prepare. Spend some time reading the Bible, and make sure they’re in church. Make sure they do something totally generous and off the wall in giving to someone who’s not family or a friend. Focus on someone who can’t pay you back. Do something in the name of Jesus Christ, rather than focus on our own needs.”

Clint Andrews, senior minister, Crossroads Christian Church

 “I would ask: How are you dealing with the fact that sometimes things seem so futile, that things sometimes seem to be going places you don’t want them to go? How do you deal with the fact that in the end we’re going to die? That’s the human existence. If you stop and think about it without all the attempts to anesthetize ourselves, life seems empty.

“So Christmas is about this: God understood the fact that humans had gotten themselves into a horrible predicament of futility, emptiness and death. And so he has come to save us from ourselves. He didn’t do that by ignoring it or tossing it away but by absorbing it into himself, and now all existence is full of life. Even the things that seem most dire, empty and futile are now shot full with life. Every moment we make a choice: We either deal with suffering without any assistance, going in the direction of anesthetizing, screaming or whining. Or by the choices we make, we incarnate within ourselves the truth of Christ – that everything is full of life, even suffering, and we can redeem all of it. This is what Christ has come to do.”

Neal Hughes, deacon, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Christian Mission

“What is the greatest virtue you can think of, and how can you make it real for someone else? If your desire is to make Christmas meaningful for yourself, then it also should be shared with others. If there’s something of value to you, then make it real for someone else. In so many words, that’s the theology of the incarnation: that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Part of the incarnation is that the life of Christ makes its seat in us who believe, and therefore it must be manifest in life.”

Hal Hutchison, rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church

“Christmas is the time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jesus was God who came to earth, and that was a step of moving out of God’s comfort zone to where we are. To show us God’s love, to celebrate Jesus’ birthday properly, we should go to others and show them God’s love. That could mean staying in Johnson City or going somewhere else. It could be going to heal relationships that are disintegrating. At Christmas, people tend to be more giving, open and loving. The trick is to make every day like Christmas. Every day we should be reaching out with God’s love.”

Louis Imsande, pastor, First Presbyterian Church

“At Christmas we should think about the essence of the gift, which was wrapped in swaddling clothes. But the gift was that God gave us reconciliation – reconciliation between God and man, between man and man and man with himself. With Christ we have the opportunity to be put back on track in our relationship with God. With that on track, we have our relationships with each other. And reconciliation always works best when a person is reconciled with oneself.”

Danny Johnson, pastor, Thankful Baptist Church

“In one way, Christmas seems to be all about us: God loved us, Christ took on flesh for us. Later he died to forgive us of our sins and rose to give us everlasting life. But Christmas is a celebration of what he did for us. We celebrate by loving him, praising him and serving him by serving others. For example, a man in our church found a homeless man sleeping in the cold, just out on the concrete, and took him into his home. That’s a great example of serving Christ by serving others, especially at this time of year – but we can do that any time of year.”

Greg Salyer, pastor, Southwestern Baptist Church

“If someone were to ask what I think, I’d say that for me, Christmas is God with us. It promises me that no matter what our condition, God is with us. Christmas is more than hanging out with my family and opening gifts. It’s the very fact that God broke through the chaos of the human condition and companioned with us. For people in the hospital, this is good news. It means we’ve not been abandoned, we’re not alone.”

Debbie Shields, Washington County senior chaplain, Mountain States Health Alliance

“Christmas from the beginning has been a celebration of God’s amazing love for all people. I think we should try to communicate that message louder than any others. When God sent Jesus to earth, he didn’t owe us anything. He did it out of his graciousness to us, and in response we need to do this for one another. We need to get past the patterns of acting out of misplaced indebtedness and treat other people with grace, whether they deserve it or not.”

Michael Sweeney, president, Emmanuel School of Religion

 First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 Dec 2009.