‘Tis the season – again. ReligionLink presents a cache of story ideas for Advent, Christmas and Hanukkah.
Mary of Nazareth
Who had more reason to be mystified at the original Christmas than Mary? And who knew more about Jesus than his mother? But many mysteries remain about her. The interest in early Christianity ignited by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code focused attention on Mary (as well as Mary Magdalene). Protestants, long distanced from Catholics by the devotion to “the Blessed Virgin Mary,” have taken another look. These are good reasons to ponder Mary this holiday season.
Jon M. Sweeney is the author of Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate. He includes Mary in the Old and New Testaments, in various mystical texts including the Quran and the texts that inspired Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ screenplay, and apparitions and visions, the rosary, feast days and issues of difficult dogma for Protestants, including the Immaculate Conception. He’s also the author of The Pope Who Quit, which tells the story of Pope St. Celestine V.
Wayne Weible of Jacksonville, Fla., is the author of Medjugorje: The Message, about visions of the Virgin Mary that began being reported in the summer of 1981 in Medjugorje, a village in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Author and historical detective Graham Phillips, who lives in the Midlands of England, explores what happened to Mary after the Crucifixion in The Virgin Mary Conspiracy: The True Father of Christ and the Tomb of the Virgin. During his research, Phillips says, he discovered a controversial theory that Jesus was the son of Antipater, the son of Herod, and so was the true heir to Herod’s throne.
Lee Strobel, who lives in Southern California, researches the Christmas story in The Case for Christmas: A Journalist Investigates the Identity of the Child in the Manger (Zondervan, 2005). Contact him via his website.
See the March 21, 2005, Time magazine cover story, “Hail, Mary,” about the growing popularity of the mother of Jesus among Protestants.
A Merry Hindu Christmas
Many Hindus regard Jesus as a yogi and follow his teachings. Some think he was in India learning Hindu teachings during the years not accounted for in the Gospels. Mahatma Gandhi said Jesus profoundly influenced him. Are Hindus in your area holding Christmas services and singing carols, as some do? Do they study and discuss Jesus’ words and actions? How do their Hindu traditions color the holiday season?
The Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Boston has held a special Christmas Eve service in which the Nativity story is read and Christmas carols are sung. Contact Swami Tyagananda.
Read “What do Hindus Believe about Jesus?” from BeliefNet.
Read a biography of Jesus written by Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati Maharaj, who lived from 1887 to 1963.
Read a Wikipedia article about Jesus that includes how Hindus and members of other religions see him.
The painting “Christ the Yogi” hangs at the San Francisco temple of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, where congregants regard Jesus to be a spiritual master who embodied pure love.
The Self-Realization Fellowship, which has headquarters in Los Angeles, follows the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) that are based on yoga and on Jesus. The fellowship has temples and meditation centers around the United States.
Stephen Prothero is former professor of Religion in America in the Department of Religion at Boston University. He is the author of numerous books including Religion Matters: An Introduction to the World’s Religions (W.W. Norton 2020), Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (HarperOne, 2016), God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010), and the New York Times bestseller Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (HarperOne, 2007). He has also written about American Hindus. Prothero has commented on religion on hundreds of National Public Radio programs, and on television on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and PBS. He lives on Cape Cod, and he tweets @sprothero.
The soundtrack of this Christmas
Complaints about the secularization of Christmas extend to music. But in difficult years, Christmas carols may bring comfort and channel emotion. In fact, many holiday favorites were created during hard times. Take “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the lyrics around 1862 out of his grief over his wife’s death and his opposition to the Civil War. Is it possible that people this holiday season will reach more toward classic Christmas carols with sacred themes for solace and encouragement? Will secularization continue to be the trend? What messages in newly produced seasonal songs will prove popular?
Christmas music historian Ron Clancy of North Cape May, N.J., produces the “Millennia Collection,” a multivolume set of Christmas music books and CDs.
Kenneth W. Osbeck of Rockford, Mich., is the author of Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Kregel Publications, 2002) and Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols (Kregel, 2000).
Read a Christianity Today article, “Peace on Earth? Christmas Carols and the Civil War.”
Hanukkah and Christmas often overlap. What a bonanza for the growing number of interfaith families, right? A perfect “teaching moment” to reach out to others — family members, friends and neighbors — to enlighten them on what it means to be an interfaith family today. But most professionals who work with interfaith families say these families take the alignment of the holidays in stride and generally do nothing out of the ordinary – simply wrapping presents, lighting candles and gathering together.
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.
Dawn Kepler is the director of Building Jewish Bridges, an outreach to interfaith families in Berkeley, Calif.
When it's not your holiday
So it’s finally Christmas, and the Christians are all nestled around their trees. What does everyone else do? In some communities, Jews and other non-Christians have formed their own Christmas Day traditions – a way to brighten up the season without climbing on Santa’s sleigh. For some, it’s serving meals at a homeless shelter, then going out for Chinese food. Denver, for example, has the Christmas Mitzvah Project at local hospitals.
Some go to the movies. Some volunteer to work so their Christian co-workers can have the day off. And some throw parties — read a Dec. 23, 2004, Washington Post story that describes everything from the Wiccans’ winter solstice party to the Gefilte Fish Gala. Hundreds show up each year at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia for storytelling and family activities. On Christmas Eve, Jewish singles flock to The Ball in New York City or the Latke Ball in San Francisco, which has gotten into a turf war with the upstart Matzo Ball. Many Jewish college students go to Israel for winter break. In 2005, many went to Louisiana help rebuild New Orleans.
Hospitals and nursing homes run without regard to anyone’s holidays, so Christians and Jews have worked out their own arrangements, with Jews working Christmas while Christians cover Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
Since 1990, Cedar Village, a retirement and nursing home in Mason, Ohio, has held a “Mitzvah Day” every Dec. 25, in which Jewish staff members volunteer to work for Christian staffers. Contact Rachel Festenstein, director of marketing and community outreach.
Congregation Or Atid, a Conservative synagogue in Richmond, Va. conducts a “Switch Day,” when members take the shifts of Christian volunteers at nearby Beth Sholom Nursing Home.
Home for the holidays
December is more than Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa for college students: It’s also the end of the fall semester. For many — particularly freshmen — these last few months have been their first prolonged time away from home and on their own. As they return to your community for the holidays, ask how the experience has affected them spiritually. Has college changed their beliefs and practices? What are local congregations doing to nurture these members while they’re away, and what are campus ministries offering these days? Is exploration of other faiths — or a seeming abandonment of faith — a normal part of the college experience?
- College students have a great deal of interest and involvement in spirituality and religion, but important differences can be found among student subgroups, particularly between African-Americans and whites, and between men and women, according to research from a national study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
- The Journal of College and Character includes a wealth of articles by academics on the topic.
- Spirituality 101: The Indispensable Guide to Keeping – or Finding – Your Spiritual Life on Campus (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004) includes the reflections of dozens of students about their spiritual journeys. Author Harriet Schwartz describes college as a time to explore difficult spiritual questions and seek common ground with people from other traditions.
- How College Affects Students (Jossey-Bass, 2005) includes chapters on moral development and attitudes/values.
Homeless for the holidays
In 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that 150,000 people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina had until Dec. 1 to find housing other than government-subsidized apartments. Some found housing, but many became homeless. A similar situation arose after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Victims of natural disasters join the estimated 636,000 Americans who are homeless on any given day. As many as 3.5 million people may be homeless at some point in a given year. The plight of natural disaster victims can help illuminate the plight of the increasing number of homeless people in America and myths about them. Many families are homeless for only a short time because of job loss or other circumstances, but studies show one episode of homelessness can have long-term negative consequences. Consider profiling a family left homeless by natural disaster, a family experiencing what will likely be short-term homelessness and another family experiencing long-term homelessness. Explore the reasons for their homelessness with the backdrop of being “home” for the holidays. Religious organizations are a prime providers of food and shelter for the homeless; how are they responding to victims of natural disaster?
Homelessness and poverty are increasing in the United States, and most state budgets have experienced deep cuts in social services. Will this new homeless population stretch scarce resources even further?
Religious organizations are critical in providing shelter and food for the homeless in most cities. How are they responding to increased needs?
- The mission of the National Coalition for the Homeless is to end homelessness.
- The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the U.S. poverty rate was 15 percent in 2011, meaning there were 46.2 million people living in poverty.
Read a transcript of the Urban Institute’s Oct. 4, 2005, panel on homelessness after Hurricane Katrina.
Read “What will it take to end homelessness?” an Oct. 1, 2001, report from the Urban Institute that includes facts and causes of homelessness.
Many cities and states have enacted laws that target homeless people. Read “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States,” a January 2006 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Christmas: A Muslim-American parent's dilemma
Christmas can be a confusing and frustrating time for American Muslims and their children. If the children attend public schools and watch television, Muslim-American parents probably will have to answer questions about Christmas, Santa Claus, presents, Christmas trees — and why they don’t observe the day. Some Muslim-American parents will be firm with their children about not observing any aspect of the holiday, no matter how secularized it may appear. Others, sympathizing with their children’s feelings about being “different” in school and wanting to give them treats, will allow their young ones to take part in a so-called “Christless Christmas,” in which things such as presents, Santa Claus and other secularized symbols can be enjoyed without, they believe, compromising their Muslim faith. There is no clear guide on which direction Muslim-American parents should take in this Christmas question. That’s because there is no one answer in Islam. While the consensus is that Muslims should not take part in any other faith’s religious celebrations, how much leeway they get in terms of a secularized Christmas can depend on how the leader of an individual mosque feels about the issue. How do Muslim-American parents in your community deal with Christmas and their children? How do leaders of your community’s various mosques look upon the issue?
- The Islamic website Jannah.org offers Muslims this guide to surviving Christmas. It looks at the religious and secular aspects of the day.
- The group American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism has a discussion of American holidays.
- The Islam Project offers this statistical look at Muslims in America.
This 1998 article in the Turkish-American magazine Anadolu looks at one Muslim woman’s challenges in raising children in North America.
Religious toys and games
Religious games and toys make great gifts — and a great story. These games and toys are often meant to educate young people about their faith. Some are just plain fun. A holiday review of some of the gift offerings targeted at various religions offers reporters a chance to briefly discuss some tenets and trivia of each in a lighthearted context.
Reporters can invite parents and kids to review the games, discussing how well each entertains and transmits religious information. Ask religious teachers to compile a list of favorite games. Ask faith leaders and teachers about the central tenets they wish to teach kids and how play can transmit or cement these values, history and ideas. Ask for ideas of low-cost or no-cost activities and games that families can do together during the holidays that serve the same purposes. Ask teens and youth to create their own games about their faith.
Examples of religious toys and games:
- Beginner Bibles in felt, the Left Behind board game and Redemption: City of Bondage board game.
- The Playmobil Advent Calendar Animal Christmas
- Talking Virgin Mary doll
- Quran Challenge, the Hajj board game and the Great Mosque board game
- First Man and Woman Quran Stories for Little Hearts Puzzle Box and Razanne: The Muslim Doll
A gift to be simple
Americans have the “busies.” We’ve filled our time with activities, and our lives with possessions that need to be maintained. And, just when the holidays call for us to take time to dwell on what really matters, we become caught up in the rush of shopping, decorating, entertaining and traveling. Yet it’s clear that people also long to simplify. Resources abound on the Web for how to prune away unnecessary expenditures and occupations. The resources may be secular, but the notion of simplicity remains spiritual. It’s a basic longing of the soul.
- Read tips on simplifying the holidays from The Center for a New American Dream, an organization that promotes simplicity.
Siang Yang Tan is pastor of the First Evangelical Church in Glendale, Calif. He wrote Rest: Experiencing God’s Peace in a Restless World (Regent College Publishing, 2003). He can discuss the concept of spiritual rest and how to achieve it through the practices of solitude and silence, surrender, simplicity and Sabbath-keeping. Ask him about sleep and approaches for those who have trouble sleeping well.
Peter C. Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California in Los Angeles, wrote American Mania: When More Is Not Enough (W.W. Norton & Co., 2005).
Richard J. Foster, who lives in the Denver area, is the author of Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World (HarperSanFrancisco, 25th anniversary edition, 2005). He is a Quaker and the founder of Renovaré, a movement committed to church renewal.