It's a common gripe these days that the holidays have become so commercial they no longer have any spiritual meaning-yet at the same time, increasing numbers of Americans are distancing themselves from religious institutions. Many people recognize that limiting the holidays to gathering with family, eating heartily, consumer shopping, and saying a few prayers undermines a golden opportunity to genuinely embody the spiritual life. How can a spiritual seeker integrate meaning into the holidays while avoiding religious tradition?
Following are ten suggestions for soulfully observing the holidays without the involvement of organized religion.
1. Celebrate life: Your life is seamlessly interconnected with all of life, yet the hustle and bustle of the everyday rush tends to obscure that fact. The holidays are the perfect time to take an extra moment every day to meditate on the wonders of life on earth and in the universe. Celebrate life in your community by volunteering for a charity, planting a tree, inviting friends to dinner, or adopting a shelter animal. You could also read a book on human culture and history to gain added appreciation for the endless variation of human beings in the world.
2. Celebrate progress: Reading or watching the news can make it seem as if the human condition today is dire, but in fact humanity has come a long way. Gone are the days of the Inquisition, legalized slavery, and sanctified misogyny. Why not celebrate progress by becoming involved in progressive environmental and social initiatives, volunteering in the campaigns of forward-looking political candidates, or supporting far-reaching nonprofit organizations?
3. Celebrate service: The word civilization is cognate with Sanskrit seva, meaning selfless service. Civilizations flourish when selfless service is foremost in the minds of their members, and decline when greed and narrow selfishness reign. The best ways to celebrate service is by participating in community projects, volunteering your time wherever it is most needed, or working to ensure that genuine public servants are placed in government offices.
4. Celebrate sharing: As part of one human family living on the same planet, we are all equally entitled to the air, food, water, and beauty that this world has to offer. You can celebrate the oneness of humanity by resolving not to accumulate more than you reasonably need and instead share excess with others. You could do this by donating to a food bank, helping a neighbor in need, giving used clothes and household items to local charities, or donating money to a worthy cause.
5. Celebrate forgiveness: Without forgiveness, holidays have little meaning. After all, there has never been a person, including Jesus, who has not erred, and holding a grudge damages you as well as the other person. Instead of making a wish list, jot down all the people in your life-whether you are in touch with them or not-that you have not forgiven (and don't forget to include yourself!). Consider the circumstances surrounding your grudge, and then make a true celebration of the holidays by forgiving everyone unconditionally.
6. Celebrate family: Holidays provide the opportunity to come together and enjoy family bonds. Seen from a larger perspective, the holiday season is a time to celebrate the human family, of which we are all members. Instead of focusing on a mythic family of the past, such as that of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you can honor your own loved ones in various ways, including the customary gift-giving ritual, expressing extra affection and care, and making an effort to resolve conflicts. It is also a good time to also come to terms with how you are shaped by family history, striving to assimilate the best that your heritage has to offer for the good of the global family.
7. Celebrate friends: It has been said that we inherit family but choose our friends. Celebrating friendship is fun and easy. Aside from giving a gift of an item or money that a friend might need, you can reach out to ensure none of your friends feels alone during the holiday season. The holidays are also a wonderful time to make new friends. Why not invite recent acquaintances to a family event? This will give you a chance to create a strong bond in a relatively short period of time.
8. Celebrate exemplars: Many religions celebrate the life of a particular human being whose actions and teachings are worthy of emulation. Yet it's not necessary to identify with a religious tradition to find many stories of great human exemplars, both in the recent and distant past. All cultures have produced great people whose lives inspire higher thoughts and honorable actions. You can choose to celebrate exemplars-whether famous figures or quiet heroes-by retelling stories from their lives, pondering how they would respond to today's circumstances, and gaining inspiration for your own actions. You might even put on a family play in commemoration of a distinguished event in the life of a genuine lover of humanity. In doing so, you will affirm that virtue and goodness are universal.
9. Celebrate introspection: Days off around the holidays provide a chance to look within and analyze your life's direction. It's the perfect time to observe the habits you've formed and the company you've been keeping in the past year, discover whether you are harmoniously and evenly developing your skills and faculties, and notice the details of your life that you might overlook in busier times. If you go away on vacation, but if you are exactly the same before and after your travels, you aren't allowing yourself the gift of a permanent vacation from bad habits and wrong choices. You can instead use the space holidays afford to make the tough choices that will benefit you in the long run, even if they seem difficult.
10. Celebrate resolution: Holidays are ideal times to make resolutions for improvement. It is usually best to make only a few resolutions, as you are then more likely to put concerted effort behind them in the coming year. Resolutions can target unhealthy habits of thought or action, often in regard to a relationship with a friend, family member, or significant other. Perhaps the most spiritual resolution is to expand your sense of self beyond national, cultural, and religious barriers and identify with everyone equally.
By observing holidays in these heartfelt ways, you can add your own efforts to collectively manifest goodness on these designated days, along with millions of other people across the globe. Indeed, a few such holidays sincerely observed by humanity, without divisive religious influences, would change the world.