Happy, hopeful days Holidays: In a rare alignment, religious observances converge near winter solstice.

December 25, 1997

NO ONE knows a precise date for the birth of a boy in Bethlehem whose life and death would inspire one of the world's major religions. But when Christians settled on December 25, it was, for the northern hemisphere at least, a choice that allowed the church to brighten the darkest days of winter with a shining star.

Yule logs, festive trees, songs and mirth are hardly exclusively Christian. Many of the customs we associate with this time of year began as ways of marking the solstice. But add the story of candles burning miraculously long, or of a newborn lying in a manger for lack of a proper crib, and mid-winter celebrations take on ever deeper meanings.

Meanwhile, Muslims are preparing for Ramadan, a month of fasting and spiritual renewal. This year, in a convergence that happens roughly three times in a century, Ramadan begins next week, on December 31. The timing of Ramadan, based on a lunar calendar, floats through the solar year, so it has never accrued the seasonal associations that Hanukkah and Christmas have taken on in this country.

Yet the fact that Muslims will be celebrating these sacred days during a season in which the world's other two great monotheistic religions are also marking holidays will bring welcome attention to the faith and practice of Muslims, a growing presence in this country.

Christians perennially worry that the true spirit of this season is swallowed up in commercialism and glitz, while Jews fret that Hanukkah, the joyous, eight-day festival of lights that began last night, has seen its real meaning twisted into a gift-giving replica of Christmas materialism. The same concerns prompted African Americans to create Kwanzaa, a seven-day festival celebrating first fruits, to help families connect with deeper values than getting and spending. Kwanzaa begins tomorrow.

The worries about the deeper meanings of holidays are justified. And yet there is something about this time of year that encourages celebration. Perhaps it is the early darkness or the worn pages of the old year's calendar and the anticipation of turning a new leaf. Perhaps it is simply the urge to band together for the dark, cold nights still ahead.

Whatever the reasons for celebrating, they make these days a time of year that can bring out the best in all of us, that can turn the meanest Scrooge into the most generous of neighbors. These are days for unwrapping surprises, for nourishing hopes, and for reaching out to fulfill the hopes of others.

It is a time, most of all, for looking to the babes among us, for looking into young eyes that reflect the miraculous candles, and for seeing that despite the darkness that often blinds our way, hope still thrives on Earth.

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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