Eighteen fresh ideas to spice up your December holiday reporting

Christmas is coming . . . but so are Hanukkah, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Kwanzaa. 

The December religious festivals (and in the case of atheists, nonreligious festivals) often begin with the eight-day Jewish feast of Hanukkah. They continue with Bodhi Day on Dec. 8, celebrating the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment. Atheists and many Earth-based religions will have celebrations around the winter solstice usually on Dec. 21 or 22, and Dec. 25, of course, is Christmas. New Year’s Eve is observed as Watch Night in many African-American congregations.

Holidays can be a holy daze of celebrations, and for reporters a monthlong challenge to find new angles on old traditions. December is a particularly busy month for holidays — just look at the stores — and this edition of ReligionLink offers some tips for journalists shopping for story ideas.

1. Our Lady of Guadalupe's resurgance

She’s the Queen of Tepeyac, the protector of Mexico, and the patron saint of the Americas. Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast day is Dec. 12, continues to grow a half-millennium after her reported appearance. It has spread throughout the United States – reaching beyond Chicano culture, beyond Roman Catholicism, and even beyond Christianity. The account of the Virgin Mary’s appearances in 1531 in Mexico to a native farmer resonates today among Catholics, Protestants, women’s groups and New Agers who find their own meaning. Guadalupe scholars suggest these fresh angles on this enduring story:

  • Growing fidelity beyond the Latino community.
  • New interest by young people.
  • The Virgin of Guadalupe as multicultural symbol.
  • Non-Latino Roman Catholics considering the pregnant Guadalupe an emblem for the right-to-life movement.
  • Protestant congregations paying attention to the feast day.
  • Women’s groups considering Guadalupe a symbol of feminism.
  • New Age groups looking at her as a goddess.
  • Pilgrimages by U.S. citizens to the shrine outside Mexico City.

Additional information


  • Theresa Torres

    Theresa Torres is assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, religious studies and anthropology at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.  She studies U.S. Hispanic Catholics, Hispanic women’s religious and civic activism, and immigration/refugee issues.

  • Timothy Matovina

    Timothy Matovina is an associate professor of theology and executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. He is an expert in theology and culture, specializing in U.S. Catholic and U.S. Latino theology and religion.

  • Virgilio Elizondo

    Virgilio Elizondo is a professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow at the Institute for Latino Studies and Kellogg Institute. He is widely considered the “father of Hispanic theology” and frequently comments on the intersection of Latino culture and religion.

  • Allan Figueroa Deck

    Allan Figueroa Deck is a lecturer of pastoral studies in Spanish at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He has commented on the importance of Hispanics to the Catholic Church in the United States.

  • Jeanette Rodriguez

    Jeanette Rodriguez, a professor of theology and religious studies at Seattle University, wrote Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment Among Mexican-American Women (University of Texas Press, 1994).

  • Gilberto Cavazos-González

    The Rev. Gilberto Cavazos-González, a Friar Minor (Franciscan), is associate professor of spirituality and directs the Hispanic ministry program at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. He writes a weekly column on Hispanic/Latino faith traditions.

  • David Sanchez

    David Sanchez teaches theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. He researches Guadalupan studies and iconography.

  • Raúl Gómez Ruiz

    The Rev. Raúl Gómez Ruiz, a Catholic priest who teaches at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis., can talk about liturgy, worship, language, clergy and popular traditions.

  • Monsignor Arturo J. Bañuelas

    Monsignor Arturo J. Bañuelas is the pastor of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in El Paso, Texas. He founded the Tepeyac Institute and is nationally known for his expertise on border issues and culture. Bañuelas edited Mestizo Christianity: Theology from the Latino Perspective (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004).

2. Kwanzaa goes global

Kwanzaa has gone international. The December holiday that celebrates African-American culture, community and family has been celebrated in Japan, England, France and Canada. In addition, community celebrations now attract large corporate sponsors. Wal-Mart and Microsoft are among the co-sponsors of the Dallas KwanzaaFest, which attracts up to 40,000 people each year. Have the holiday’s celebrations changed with the spread to other countries and cultures? How is the celebration being influenced by corporate sponsorships? The seven days of Kwanzaa begins Dec. 26 and ends Jan. 1.

Additional information


  • Maulana Karenga

    Maulana Karenga is the founder of the holiday Kwanzaa. Karenga is a professor of black studies at California State University in Long Beach.

  • Ama Mazama

    Ama Mazama is a professor in the African-American studies department at Temple University in Philadelphia. She wrote a book about Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa ou la Célébration du Génie Africain, that was published in France in 2006.

  • Akinyele Umoja

    Akinyele Umoja is a professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He attributes the popularity of Kwanzaa to its nonreligious nature.

  • Cheryl Kirk-Duggan

    Cheryl Kirk-Duggan is a professor of theology and women’s studies at the Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, N.C. She can discuss the current celebration of Kwanzaa in black communities and congregations in the South.

3. Greeting cards bridging differences between faiths

Greeting cards reflect the culture, and the interfaith greeting card has come of age. In fact, some greeting cards have moved beyond interfaith to mere multicultural greetings, such as “May we lift the boundaries that separate us and live in peace.”

There are no firm statistics on the number of interfaith families. Jewish groups, concerned about the increasing number of kids who are not being raised Jewish, know that about half of Jews marry spouses who aren’t Jewish. But Christians and Jews also marry Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and people of other faiths, such as Mormons or Unitarian Universalists, which can make for a clash of religious cultures during the holidays.

Greeting cards – whether they are printed, e-cards, or make-your-own kits – offer one way to both acknowledge and bridge differences.


  • Phil and Elise Okrend

    Phil and Elise Okrend are co-founders of MixedBlessing, a company in Raleigh, N.C., that produces interfaith cards, music and other holiday items. The Okrends, both Jewish, also are co-authors of the children’s book Blintzes for Blitzen (MixedBlessing, 1996).

  • Pet Star

    Pet Star’s collection of interfaith greeting cards feature two dogs or cats – one wearing a Santa hat, the other, a yarmulke.

    Contact: 305-233-7722.

4. Crafting a message for the troops

With more than 150,000 troops stationed overseas, a stateside army of volunteers has popped up to provide them with everything from phone cards to body armor. Many donor groups are religiously based, coming out of well-organized ministries, grass-roots efforts among individual congregations, and groups of friends. Quite a few of these groups are sending handmade items – teddy bears, rosaries, prayer beads, cards, food, blankets and more – with the hope that something made by the hand bears more of the spirit of the maker and can form a deeper connection with the receiver. Many of these handmade items also come with a religious message – a CD with a sermon, a booklet with suggested prayers and Bible readings.


  • George E. Packard

    The Right Reverend George E. Packard is the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies for the Episcopal Church. He is in charge of all Episcopal chaplains attached to the armed services. He describes the rosaries, prayer beads and medals soldiers carry into battle as “companion object[s] which God uses to heighten moments of insight, prayer, and sometimes deep sorrow.”

  • Prayers & Squares

    Many chapters of Prayers & Squares make small patches of patriotic fabric to send to soldiers overseas. The patches are constructed of patriotic fabric and are held together with ties that are knotted by the makers as they say prayers for the soldiers

  • Prayer Bear Ministry, Inc.

    The Prayer Bear Ministry of Sherman, Texas, solicits small donations from people to make simple fabric teddy bears for shipment to servicemen and women at home and abroad. In just one year, the ministry sent more than 20,000 bears to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each bear is prayed over as it is made and has a silver tear, to represent the tears of Christ on the cross, and a gold cross, to represent the light of God. The ministry was founded by Terry Krawitz, an Episcopalian, after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

  • Prayer Beads Ministry

    The Prayer Beads Ministry at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, Pa., makes Anglican prayer beads for wide distribution, including to soldiers and AIDS hospice workers in Swaziland.

  • Soldiers’ Angels

    Soldiers’ Angels offers kits to make “blankets of hope” to send to soldiers overseas. It was founded by Patti Patton-Bader when her eldest son went to Iraq.

  • Sew Much Comfort

    Sew Much Comfort is a volunteer nonprofit group that sews adaptive clothing for veterans who have lost limbs. Seamstresses volunteer from all over the country.

5. Hajj preparations intensify

Hajj – the pilgrimage Muslims are expected to make to the holy city of Mecca at least once – has never been an easy trip. But since the Sept. 11 attacks, making the journey to Saudi Arabia has become even more complex as the U.S. heightened its security standards, Saudi Arabia reduced the number of visas it issues, and outbreaks of influenza among pilgrims threaten lives. In addition, more than 500 pilgrims have died in the last four years in stampedes that occurred during a stone-throwing ritual, in which pilgrims stone a symbolic devil; in 1990, nearly 1,500 pilgrims died in a stampede.

To simplify the trip and make it safer, local and national Muslim groups are organizing meetings between prospective hajjis and U.S. Customs and Transportation Security Administration officials for the first time. Other groups are organizing more general hajj workshops for the first time that will pay special attention to getting through airport security and customs more easily. Hajj begins about nine days earlier each year, with the sighting of the new moon. Journalists who wish to report on local Muslims’ hajj journeys can start now by finding out how preparations and precautions for the trip are changing.

Imams suggest these story ideas:

  • Before and after: Pilgrims say they reap enormous spiritual rewards from hajj. Interview them before and after their journey to see how they have been shaped by it.
  • Children of Abraham: During hajj, Muslims perform rituals that re-enact events in the lives of the prophet Abraham (Muslims call him Ibrahim), Hagar and their son, Ishmael. Christians and Jews know these names from their Scriptures, but the stories differ in the Quran, where Abraham shows his willingness to sacrifice Ishmael – not Isaac, as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles say. Much has been written about how Christianity, Judaism and Islam are the three great Abrahamic faiths; use hajj as an occasion to compare and contrast their views of Abraham.
  • Preparations: Preparation for hajj is extensive. The journey costs thousands of dollars, and travelers must obtain visas and travel documents, religious items and spiritual instruction. Several hundred tour companies operate in the United States alone and arrange pilgrims’ accommodations, transportation and, sometimes, religious education. Imams warn that not all tour operators are reliable, so they suggest seeking recommendations before selecting one to interview. Consider attending hajj workshops or classes offered by Islamic centers and mosques in the month before hajj begins.
  • Follow a pilgrim’s progress: Pilgrims spend an extensive amount of time planning their journey, so begin early if you intend to find a story subject to follow through the entire process. A Muslim from your city may be willing to contribute a journal or blog from abroad.

Additional information


  • Muzammil Siddiqi

    Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Executive Council of the Shura Council of Southern California and director of the Islamic Center of Orange County, has written about the need for forgiveness from an Islamic perspective and led Muslim-Catholic dialogues.

    Contact: 714-531-1722, 714-239-6473.
  • Zaid Shakir

    Zaid Shakir is an African-American imam who converted to Islam during his service in the Air Force. He has a master’s degree in political science and received classical scholarly training in the Muslim world. He is a writer, speaker, teacher and activist, having founded several Muslim organizations in the eastern U.S. before becoming a resident scholar at Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif., which calls him a leader in an emerging indigenous American Muslim tradition. Read his blog at New Islamic Directions.

  • Shakeel Syed

    Shakeel Syed is the executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. In 2006, the council organized a meeting between hajj tour directors and imams leading the pilgrimage and U.S. Customs and TSA officials at Los Angeles International Airport. The council repeated the meeting in 2007 and 2012 as a town hall event open to prospective hajjis as well. They said they have heard from Islamic organizations in other areas interested in sponsoring similar events.

  • Ahmed Bedier

    Ahmed Bedier is the founder and past executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In 2006, for the first time, he met with Tampa U.S. Customs and TSA officials to discuss the travel plans of local residents preparing for hajj. He now serves as the president of the Tampa/Hillsborough County Human Rights Council and has created an organization called United Voices for America.

  • The Islamic Learning Foundation

    The Islamic Learning Foundation, a project of the Islamic Circle of North America in New York, conducted a hajj workshop in 2007 at their center in College Point, N.Y. They hoped the program would better equip and prepare people for the trip.

Side note: Don’t be surprised if some of your well-intentioned questions are politely rebuffed. Asking a Muslim how many times she or he has made hajj, for example, can put him on the spot. Humility and modesty are highly regarded; a Muslim may feel embarrassed if asked to discuss spiritual efforts.

6. Hunger and the holidays

Millions of Americans worry about hunger every day, whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, or hajj. The December holidays, a time of abundance for many, are a good opportunity to write about the difficult choices faced by hungry families. While needs persist all year long, many people make extra efforts to give more to charity during the holidays, and many organizations offer innovative ways for them to help. Tell stories of finding and filling needs through local families, local food banks and local congregations.

Feeding America is the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States – a network of food banks and food-rescue groups around the country, many of them faith-based organizations. It says its report Hunger in America 2010 is the most comprehensive profile ever produced of people who use emergency food services. Among its findings:

  • Feeding America is annually providing food to 37 million Americans, including 14 million children. This is an increase of 46 percent over 2006, when it fed 25 million Americans, including 9 million children, each year.
  • That means one in eight Americans now rely on Feeding America for food and groceries.
  • Feeding America’s nationwide network of food banks is feeding 1 million more Americans each week than it did in 2006.
  • Thirty-six percent of the households it serve have at least one person working.
  • More than one-third of client households report having to choose between food and other basic necessities, such as rent, utilities and medical care.
  • The number of children the Feeding America network serves has increased by 50 percent since 2006.

Additional information

  • The Society of St. Andrew, an ecumenical Christian ministry, sells Christmas gift cards for $10 each; proceeds are used to provide food for the hungry.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America provides World Hunger Gift Tags, so gift-givers can let a loved one know when a donation has been made in that person’s honor.
  • Some people order online from alternative giving markets such as Alternative Gifts International, Greater Gift or Ten Thousand Villages. Some congregations have started a holiday tradition of sponsoring markets in their towns.
  • The Hungersite.com store, working with Mercy Corps and America’s Second Harvest, gives a portion of profits to fight world hunger.
  • The Heifer Project encourages folks to give a hungry family a cow instead of giving your sister another sweater. Watch a YouTube video from musician Dan Zanes, featuring his song “Holiday Time in Brooklyn!”


7. Was Jesus an illegal immigrant?

The Christmas story is one of such great familiarity that many Christian leaders struggle to present it in a fresh way. One tactic is to remind congregants of the plight of the Holy Family — traveling from Galilee to Bethlehem, then fleeing into Egypt to save the life of the baby Jesus. The point is that Jesus — and Mary and Joseph — would today have been considered refugees, or perhaps illegal immigrants.

Immigration continues to be a major part of the national conversation. Opinions are divided. The debate on immigration reform has split the country, so it’s no surprise that the religious community is divided over the issue as well. Just a few years ago, the clergy were divided from their flock with clergy tending to support immigration reform. However, opinions have begun to change. Across the country, Roman Catholic clergy have been fighting efforts by Congress to make it a crime to help or hide illegal immigrants. With the Catholic Church’s Catechism stating that “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin,” priests and nuns believe it to be their divine duty to protect illegal immigrants.

Religious communities have made humane immigration reform a priority, led by the Roman Catholic Church, which is bolstered by an influx of Latinos. Leaders cite Jesus’ call in the Gospel of Matthew to “welcome the stranger,” because “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.” But how many of their congregants are behind the leadership? Christmas is a good time to find out.


  • Jeffrey S. Passel

    Jeffrey S. Passel is a senior demographer for the Pew Hispanic Center, which has conducted research on Latino immigration patterns and Hispanic attitudes toward immigration policy.

  • Marshall Fitz

    Marshall Fitz is the director of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress (CAP), which is a progressive independent nonpartisan educational institute. Contact Fitz through the CAP communications director Crystal Patterson or through the email form on his CAP page.

  • Peggy Levitt

    Peggy Levitt is a professor of Latin American studies and sociology at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She is the author of several books, including God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape

  • Ira Mehlman

    Ira Mehlman is media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR advocates for changes in immigration law that would reduce the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States. Mehlman contends that Jews could face increased anti-Semitism if more immigrants are allowed into the U.S. Contact Mehlman through FAIR press secretary Cassie Williams.

  • Janet Murguía

    Janet Murguia is the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States.

  • Edwin I. Hernández

    Edwin I. Hernández is the director of the Center for Study of Latino Religion at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. The center conducts social-scientific study of the U.S. Latino church, its leadership and the interaction between religion and community.

8. Prime time for collectors

For collectors, Christmas and Hanukkah are the perfect time of year: Santa’s sleigh will come full of vintage movie posters or bobble-heads of world leaders, and there will be eight nights on which to score more sports memorabilia. Some critics say such consumerism trumps the spiritual meaning of the season. But for some collectors, the act of gathering objects that hold meaning for them is, in a way, a spiritual act.

They arrange their homes with a sense of beauty and connectedness. They surround themselves with reminders of travel and happy times, or with symbols, such as angels, of the things in which they believe. The bowls of rocks and shells on the bookshelf – gathered on the honeymoon, scooped up by the children, spotted on a beach walk with Dad the summer before he died – didn’t cost anything, yet are priceless. December offers an opportunity to explore the meaning behind people’s collections, from the spiritual – crèches and menorahs – to the secular


  • “A Guide to Women’s Altars”

    Some set up sacred spaces or altars in their homes – with candles, keepsakes, photographs, a bit of blue glass that seems exactly right – a window, almost, to the divine. Read a Beliefnet.com story about women who set up personal altars in their homes.

  • “Collecting madness”

    Read an online list of some of what people collect and why – from dog tags to old bricks.

  • “By Removing the Clutter, Many Find Path to Clarity”

    Some contend that clearing out clutter – simplifying, paring down – can have spiritual benefits as well. Read an Oct. 3, 2004, story in The Washington Post about how traditions from feng shui to Roman Catholicism teach about the spiritual joys of living with less.

9. The rise of 'Vigilante Volunteers'

The Baby Boom generation is reshaping volunteerism, and it’s a trend that’s easy to report on during the December holidays. Vigilante volunteers, as they are called, are people who go outside traditional nonprofit structures to fill needs they are inspired to address. At churches or nonprofit agencies, they may be frustrated by menial volunteer tasks, a perceived ineffectiveness, or lack of attention to a particular problem. Whatever the case, vigilante volunteers decide to do something, and set out to do it in their own way.

Vigilante volunteers sometimes do tremendous good – but they also can be a tremendous challenge to the hundreds of charities that attempt to harness people’s time and talents during the holiday season. How are religious and secular nonprofits trying to accommodate “vigilante volunteers”? How are volunteers in your community devising their own ways to meet the needs of others?


  • Pamela J. Sybert

    Pamela J. Sybert is director of the Educational Consortium for Volunteerism at the University of North Texas in Denton. The consortium’s mission is to enhance professional volunteer management and to foster more effective volunteerism through university support.

  • Peter Frumkin

    Peter Frumkin is professor of social policy, faculty director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, and director of the nonprofit leadership program at University of Pennsylvania.He is the author of On Being Nonprofit: A Conceptual and Policy Primer (Harvard University Press, 2005).

  • Marcy Fink Campos

    Marcy Fink Campos is director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service at American University in Washington, D.C. The center supports student volunteerism that ranges from structured one-day projects to multi-year initiatives that lead to the development of independent nonprofit organizations.

  • James M. Ferris

    James M. Ferris is director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The center provides research on philanthropy, volunteerism and the nonprofit sector.

  • Dr. Harold Koenig

    Dr. Harold Koenig is a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health. He wrote the white paper for the Department of Health and Human Services on faith-based responses to natural disasters and terrorism.

  • Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network

    The Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network mobilizes millions of volunteers to help solve social problems in thousands of communities. Contact Leona Hiraokavice president of communications.

  • Nancy Macduff

    Nancy Macduff is a volunteer trainer, manager and author who publishes the online newsletter Volunteer Today.  She’s based in Walla Walla, Wash.

  • Susan J. Ellis

    Susan J. Ellis is the editor-in-chief of E-Volunteerism, a quarterly online journal that focuses on effective volunteer management. Contact Ellis in Philadelphia, Pa.

10. Autism and celebrations

The Christmas season abounds with lights, music and excitement. All that stimuli can be stressful for children with autism. What can families and churches do to make Christmastime joyous but not overwhelming for them?

Additional information

  • The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides data and background information about autism spectrum disorders.
  • Autism Source is the Autism Society’s resource database. Churches are among those hosting support groups and providing other services for families affected by autism.
  • Read a parent’s December 2009 blog entry about Christmas with his autistic son.
  • Read an article from the Autism Support Network about how a mother and her son with autism enjoy Christmas.

11. More menorahs?

Two surveys of mixed-faith households shed light on the “December dilemma” of two holidays, and that light is coming from a menorah.

A demographic study of Boston area Jews done by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University shows that a surprising number – 60 percent – of intermarried couples are raising their children Jewish. That figure is almost double the national estimate – one-third – of intermarried families making that choice. Timed for the holidays, the third annual “December dilemma” survey of families done by Interfaithfamily.com, an Internet resource for interfaith families, shows that intermarried households are keeping both holidays, but they are giving priority to the Jewish celebration.

The Boston study has implications for other American Jewish communities seeking to promote Jewish spiritual identification and affiliation. The Boston Jewish community has offered diverse programming aimed at keeping people plugged in to the Jewish social network. The study also showed that almost all Jewish women in mixed-faith households raise Jewish children, suggesting that intermarriage adds to the Jewish community. What are the holiday plans of families in your community? What do local congregations say about outreach and programming for intermarried households?


  • Combined Jewish Philanthropies

    Combined Jewish Philanthropies is an organization bring together the Jewish community’s resources, volunteers, leadership and expertise in Greater Boston.

    It commissioned the study of the Boston Jewish community.

  • Edmund Case

    Edmund Case is CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, an online resource for families who incorporate more than one religion in their practices. It is based in Newton, Mass.

    The website released results of its 2010 survey [PDF file] on how interfaith couples raising children in the Jewish tradition handle Hanukkah and Christmas. It also offers extensive December holidays resources.

12. College students

December can be a time of great stress for college students as they deal with exams and term papers, search for seasonal jobs and transition back into the home environment after a semester of independence. Some students also find they’ve drifted away from their faith while away from home. How are congregations, campus ministries and other faith-based groups reaching out to students to help them cope and reconnect?


13. Rekindling Hanukkah spirituality

Hanukkah is widely celebrated as a children’s holiday centered on dreidels, latkes and gifts. But it can also be an adult opportunity for rekindling Jewish spirituality.

Hanukkah commemorates an ancient era when many Jews assimilated to prevailing Hellenistic values and practices that conflicted with traditional Jewish teachings and observances. Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder and director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, sees a strong parallel to today’s America, with many Jews “living as Hellenists and loving it.” Because Hanukkah celebrates a rededication to Jewish values, Buchwald believes, an adult understanding of the holiday’s deeper meaning can lead to “finding joy and inspiration in Jewish life and practice.”


14. Watch Night

This New Year’s Eve service, common in America’s black churches, is a time for reflection as well as looking forward. Is it being observed any differently this year, with so many people going through hard times? What messages of hope or lessons learned are ministers preparing?


  • The African American Lectionary

    The African American Lectionary provides cultural and worship resources, as well as lectionary commentary, for use by congregations year-round, including on Watch Night.

  • Forrest Harris

    Forrest Harris is director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on African-American Church Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., as well as an associate professor of the practice of ministry. He teaches courses on the theology of ministry in the black church tradition and can discuss liberation theology and social justice.

  • Juan M. Floyd-Thomas

    Juan M. Floyd-Thomas is associate professor of African-American religious history at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School and a member of the cultural resources team for the African American Lectionary. He is also an expert on religion and protest music and black religious experience in America.

  • Luke A. Powery

    Luke A. Powery is assistant professor of homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of Spirit Speech: Lament and Celebration in Preaching (2009).

15. The Christmas play's supporting cast

Jesus is the central character in any Nativity account, of course. But what about the others who were part of the first Christmas? Catholics have always been known for their devotion to Mary, but some Protestants are also turning their attention to her, particularly during Advent. Joseph, the Magi, the shepherds and even Herod are getting another look, too. What fresh insights can Christians gain from broadening their focus this season?


16. Why do we give?

Whatever the religious tradition, December holidays usually have one thing in common: gift-giving. Is it about commercialism, capitalism — or evolutionary biology?


  • “Unraveling the mystery of why we give, or don’t”

    Read a Nov. 30, 2010, story in USA Today, “Unraveling the mystery of why we give, or don’t,” about new research into the biology of altruism.

  • “How to help (yourself)”

    Read a Nov. 29, 2010, story in The Boston Globe, “How to help (yourself),” that shows gift-giving and doing for others may help ease the giver’s emotional disorders.

  • “The Economy is Sacred, Stupid”

    Read a Nov. 29, 2010, post at ReligionDispatches by Gary Laderman, titled “The Economy is Sacred, Stupid.” Laderman, chair of the religion department at Emory University, dissects the American impulse using religious tools.

  • “Why are humans altruistic?”

    Read this article from HowStuffWorks about why humans have a tendency to give.

17. I'm dreaming of a green holiday

Much of the holiday season (perhaps too much) involves excess consumption of resources – money, food, paper, energy and so forth. Is it possible to celebrate in simplicity? As spirituality and eco-mindfulness become more closely intertwined, discussion of how and why to rejoice in green religious holidays seems, well, natural. Some starting thoughts:

Additional information

  • Many congregations and religious organizations have been changing their practices to emphasize stewardship of God’s creation. How are they changing holiday practices to reflect those beliefs? Many organizations offer tips for individuals and congregations, including EarthCare, a Christian organization that posts guides to shopping and creation care in personal and congregational life.
  • The National Council of Churches posts a congregational covenant for churches that commit to environmental stewardship. It includes suggestions for families and congregations at Christmas.
  • Green America offers a list of ways to “green” your holidays. Look for ways people of faith, congregations and organizations are using similar tactics to emphasize giving and meaning during the December holidays.
  • For suggestions on simplifying or “greening” the holidays, see The Use Less Stuff Report’s checklist of waste-saving suggestions, or the Center for a New American Dream’s “Simplify the Holidays” guide.


  • J. Baird Callicott

    J. Baird Callicott is a professor in the philosophy and religious studies department at the University of North Texas in Denton. His expertise includes ecological ethics. He has written several books, including In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy and Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics From the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback.

  • Bron Raymond Taylor

    Bron Raymond Taylor is a religion professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he helped to launch a graduate program in religion and nature. Taylor was also instrumental in the formation of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture and served as its first president from 2006-2009. He is considered a leading scholar on religion and nature, and his books include (as editor) the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and (as author) Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future.


  • Paul F. Waldau

    Paul F. Waldau works at the intersection of animal studies, ethics, religion, law and cultural studies. He is an associate professor and lead faculty member for the anthrozoology graduate program at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., as well as the president of the Religion and Animals Institute.

18. Religious holidays at school

Holidays bring excitement, but in public schools, they also inspire fear and confusion over what is legally acceptable according to church-state court rulings and government guidelines. Many schools have excised religion altogether from holiday music, festivals and displays, while others attempt to acknowledge all holidays. The choices aren’t clear-cut: School districts often receive unsolicited, conflicting advice from advocacy organizations about what’s legally acceptable. The issue is complicated by the fact that federal court rulings in different parts of the country have been mixed.

In fact, there is no one correct way to handle religious holidays in public schools, experts say. Though school officials must follow certain guidelines, they are also wise to craft practices by taking into account the religious makeup of the school and area. In general, schools may celebrate secular aspects of holidays and teach about their religious aspects if they do so in an “objective” manner – in other words, to give information about rather than to inspire faith.

Journalists generally encounter holiday issues when a conflict occurs. They can, however, also look for schools that have successfully incorporated holidays into their curriculum year-round and have clearly defined what role holidays and religion play in children’s learning. A call to the local school district’s attorney may also yield stories about how conflicts or questions are resolved before they land in court. Attorneys say some questions on what is acceptable fall into gray areas where law is not clear. For example, a teacher may not read to students from a religious text, but what happens when a parent reader shows up in class and decides to read scripture?

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