New Years Eve Reflection

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight.

As we’re celebrating the New Year tonight and tomorrow, I thought I would mention a few of the other New Year celebrations, and what they can teach us about the annual tradition.

For the Jewish community, Rosh Hashanah, or Yamim Nora’im–“Days of Awe”–is the high holy day celebrated in early autumn. It commemorates Earth’s birthday, or the anniversary of the first humans, as marked in the Book of Genesis with Adam and Eve.

The Islamic New Year, which ranges in date based on astronomical calculations, is the day which marks the beginning of the new Islamic calendar year. This holiday is connected to the first pilgrimage: the Hijra that Muhammed took from Mecca to Medina in 610 AD.

There are also new year celebrations that aren’t necessarily religious, like the Chinese New Year, which this year is January 31, 2014. The origin of this holiday is based on several myths and traditions, and has been celebrated in every country with a Chinese community-ranging from China to the Philippines to Chinatowns in the US.

All of these celebrations connect communities to their past; they connect people to where they come from. These origin stories of various religions and cultures remind people during their New Years to reflect on their community’s narrative by celebrating together.

We often mark the end of the year with “Best of 2013” lists, but what if we went farther back than that — what if we connected our celebration to the larger stories of our communities and cultures? As the ball drops tonight, let’s try to think about what that story is.

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Transcendent Symbolism of Light

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight.

“We all have a similar style of celebrating happiness. It’s getting together with friends, worshiping with the god or gods, having a lot of food, and–common to every faith–candles.”

Those words come from Smita Chandra of the West Michigan Hindu Temple, who shared with me what she has learned from being a part of interfaith in Grand Rapids.

The more I’ve thought about what she said, the more and more I’ve seen that symbolism of light, especially in these fall and winter holidays.

As we approach the shortest day of the year this Saturday, December 21st, the practicality of light during the holiday season seems obvious. But there’s much more meaning that that. Every holiday that we’ve celebrated in the last few months of the year has deeply symbolic meanings of light.

There’s Diwali, the autumnal festival of lights in the Hindu, Jain, and Sikh traditions, which marks the victory of light over darkness by burning candles, setting off fireworks, and more.

For Thanksgiving, an American holiday of gratitude and family, we gather around the dinner table, often decorated with candles and harvest decor.

During Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, families kindle menorah lights for eight days.

In Kwanzaa, a celebration of African heritage and roots in family life and unity, the Kinara is the centerpiece, which, representing ancestors and ancient values, holds seven candles that are lit during the seven days of the holiday.

Finally, light is at the core of Christmas–not only in the candles on the windowsills and lights on our trees, but also in the Advent wreaths where a candle is lit on each of the four Sundays leading to the Nativity of Jesus.

Light is manifested in many forms and for many purposes–from the warmth provided as Winter Solstice draws close, or the unifying energy of candles around the home or table, the symbolism of a tradition’s values, or the representation of the battles of light over dark, good over evil, and hope over despair.

These holidays have been created and shaped in very different cultures and time periods, but they all hold light as an irreplaceable symbol. There seems to be an intrinsic or fundamental human appreciation for light and what it stands for. Especially during holiday seasons, we look for these signs of goodness and hope, and there always seem to be plenty found.