One of the things I love most about designing a curriculum for kids is the opportunity to learn things I never knew and to rediscover half-forgotten tidbits of truth. As the holiday season is in full swing, I’ve been diving into books and the internet to dig up information about the major holidays people celebrate. Most of the kids in my program are from either Catholic or non-religious homes, so Christmas is the most popular holiday, but I have the luck to have a few who are being raised Hindu and Jewish, giving me the chance to wander around my casual hobby of comparative religious studies.
Please don’t take that last sentence as something offensive if you are religious. I have a deep respect for religion and the powerful role for good it can play in people’s lives and do not mean to suggest that accurate and meaningful comparisons can be easily made by a hobbyist scholar reading Wikipedia. All I mean to say is that as I dug around for stories and craft ideas to present my kids with a good multicultural holiday unit, I noticed something.
Do you know the story of Hanukkah? The ancient Israelites were constantly at war with other nations, in turn being conquered and regaining their freedom. A common part of the cycle was desecration of the Temple, the only holiest of spots for the children of Israel. One of these conquering kings turned the Temple into an altar for Zeus, which (among other prohibitions against core practices of the Jewish faith) caused the sons of a priest to incite a rebellion. When they won, largely because of the priest’s son they called Judah the Hammer (Judah Maccabee), they needed to rededicate the Temple by burning olive oil, but there was only enough oil for one day. The eight days over which Hanukkah is celebrated represent the eight days it took to prepare more oil, and as legend goes, the lamp miraculously never went out during those eight days.
The story of Diwali that I like best comes from Hinduism, though you’ll find different narratives in Sikhism and Jainism, which also celebrate the Indian Festival of Lights. The story says that the Demon-King Ravana had conquered Lord Rama and sent him into an exile that lasted fourteen years. When Lord Rama returned to cast out the false tyrant, his people celebrated by filling the sky with fireworks and lighting candles in their homes. Sound familiar? With ties to two other narratives, the celebration of Diwali is also much more generally explained as being about the triumph of good over evil. Of light over dark.
The story of Christmas I’ll share last and sparsely because probably most of my small readership knows it best: the God of Abraham and Isaac was born into human form so he could be the Light of the World. Tidbit of knowledge for you–the Jewish traditions of the Messiah predict a warrior king who would free the Israelites once again from political and religious persecution, as Judah the Hammer had once done. And we celebrate Christmas by putting candles in our windows, by stringing lights around an evergreen tree.
I would guess that it’s no coincidence that all of these different stories about light conquering darkness, good triumphing over evil, the faithful being freed from the oppressors are celebrated during the darkest moments of the year, just as the daylight is as scarce as it gets. Fear of the unknown haunts the dark for all people, limited as our eyesight is without light. Cold is the enemy that makes us all sadder, weaker, poorer, and hungrier. The lengthening of the days brings hope to life with every extra minute of sun, even now in a society where we can switch on a dozen lights with the flick of a finger.
I won’t try to make too much of this in order to avoid upsetting anyone whose own faith would be offended by being the subject of my quasi-anthropological ponderings, but I do think that these common threads among these different faiths underline a lovely thing in human nature. We can find hope in the very darkest moments and, comforted by the mere promise of better days, find it in ourselves to be generous with those resources that need to sustain us through the lingering darkness.
And that is most definitely something to celebrate.