Did you know the United States has an annual National Day of Prayer? Regardless of your religious beliefs, you can participate this year on Thursday, May 3. In fact, you may have been participating in small, daily ways already.
What is The National Day of Prayer?
The National Day of Prayer comes each spring, and has ever since 1952, when President Harry S. Truman declared it law. In 1988, the law was amended to appoint the first Thursday in May the official date of celebration. The amended law was signed by President Ronald Reagan, who said:
“From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future.”
People of many religions honor the day, including Christians, Protestants, Catholics, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews. Some gather to pray in houses of worship, and others celebrate with food, music, and time together.
This year, the theme is “Praying for America: Unity,” based on the scripture Ephesians 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
How Can Each of Us Participate?
Our nation is divided, but goodness can still be found. In 2017, stories of light shone through the darkness which shrouded nearly every bit of news. In addition to praying for the unity we desperately need now, we can follow the examples of the people who inspired us.
Find Common Ground
Do you remember when a 22-year-old rapper from Harlem and an 81-year-old grandmother from Florida became friends after competing in 324 rounds of an online crossword puzzle? Spencer Sleyon agreed to play a Words With Friends game with a random opponent. Over a year later, he and Rosalind “Roz” Guttman were still playing and had become real-life pals. They met in person in December of 2017, when Spencer traveled to Roz’s hometown.
Speak Well of Others
When Senator John McCain announced his brain tumor diagnosis last summer, fellow politicians—including some who opposed him in the past—rallied to offer support and encouragement.
Former president Barack Obama, who ran against McCain in the 2008 presidential election said, “John McCain is an American hero and one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”
Help Someone in Need
Around the same time last summer, nine swimmers, including an entire family of six, were trapped in the current at Panama City Beach in Florida. Beach-goers spotted them and rushed to the rescue. No one could do it alone, however. So a reported 70 to 80 strangers held hands and formed a human chain that stretched from the sand to the swimmers, who all survived.
On this year’s National Day of Prayer, we can each do something to build unity in the United States. Whether it is through prayer, friendship, kind words, or service, your part will make a difference. How will you celebrate?
“So what exactly is Shrove Tuesday?” my sister texted me on February 13th this year. While many people were preparing to celebrate Valentine’s Day, many people the world over were stuffing their faces with pancakes. Shrove Tuesday, also known as “the feast before the fast” signifies the gathering of Christian communities in homes and church basements across the globe to break bread before the forty days of Lenten fast that proceed Easter.
Having been raised largely in the Mennonite tradition, Shrove Tuesdays, Ash Wednesday services and the practices of a prolonged Lenten fast preceding Easter were unfamiliar to me before my university days. While I would often reflect on the story of Easter celebrated by Christians every spring, there was really very little sustained meditation on preparing one’s heart for Easter.
This year was different. I attended a Shrove Tuesday dinner in the basement of my new church. Hemmed in on each side by congregants from every stage of life, I devoured homemade pancakes prepared cheerfully by our clergy. At my table sat a young mother, an older man with a story of ongoing homelessness, young professionals and for a brief time the Pastor’s wife. The next morning I rolled out of bed for the 7:00am prayer service marking Ash Wednesday, a penitential service that signals the beginning of the season of fasting that precedes Holy Week and Easter Sunday.
Before we celebrate the sacrifice of our Saviour we must first remember the agony, we must first repent; we must first understand what it is to do without in our own small way. Lining up behind congregants, I bowed my head as the curate made the sign of the cross, repeating softly “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I’ll be honest -this Lent, this doing without, that dust the curate talked about, all seem very apt in the anticipatory season that precedes Easter. In this Lenten season, the world does indeed seem dark and close to crumbling with great specificity to dust. It’s nothing and everything all at once. The dust seems visible to me through the shadow of the grave of which I am reminded as an acquaintance mourns the brutally slow loss of his mother to brain cancer and news of yet another bloody school shooting is splashed across the newspaper one morning. The dust rises in the seeming ashes of a dream as my friend cries across from me into her half eaten lunch. All she wants is a baby and new life seems impossible. Dust comes to me in the form of dust motes that slip through the air as I muffle sobs of my own as those dear to me describe a seemingly irreparable relationship. What to do with all of this space and sadness? Dust seems almost merciful in light of these losses.
Yet, I find myself thinking, perhaps herein lies the message of Lent and Easter: That redemption, hope fulfilled and comfort all begin within the presence of darkness. Isn’t this what first drew me to the faith? Isn’t it what breathes life into me on my darkest days now? The promise that in the ashes of brokenness and impossible darkness, a light dawns over the resurrected world. For what is the hope of resurrection and restoration if not seen alongside what comes before?
This Easter, it was the long shadow of the cross to which I looked to, baptizing my view of all that has gone before and all that is to come. As we in the Christian tradition broke the fast and celebrated the miracle of our Saviour restored and returned once again to live among us, I prayed for new eyes to see all that God is creating from the dust. As my eyes continue to catch on the crumble, on the dust motes and the shadow of the grave, as I know they will, I’ll remind myself to remember that dust is not the end and that resurrection has the last word.
Have you ever noticed how packed churches get on Ash Wednesday?
If you think about it, what often gets churches packed on Christmas and Easter—besides often being obligatory for practicing Christians to attend—is that many families are bringing along family members who may or may not be practicing Christians to attend with them.
You’d almost think it’s Christmas or Easter how packed churches get on this mid-week day that’s traditional yet optional for all range of Western Christians to attend—from Methodist to Lutheran to Presbyterian to Anglican to Catholic to Western Orthodox churches. But, on Ash Wednesday, nearly each man or woman has arrived on their own—often by themselves!
This year, the webmaster of my church was pleasantly surprised when she looked at the web analytics: the site had more users on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year. Which actually seems to support the sense of non-churchgoers in attendance: it’s those who aren’t getting the bulletins and announcements each Sunday who need to look up the service times online.
I observed this a couple years ago when attending a service in Washington, DC. During the standing-room-only service, I saw faces I never saw on Sunday that day. My husband even recognized an old teaching colleague who was not a church-going Christian at the time; nevertheless she felt compelled that day to attend. “I just felt a pull today,” she said, after receiving the burnt ashes of last year’s palms on her forehead.
So what is it about Ash Wednesday that makes people remember it and show up? It certainly isn’t just to get a black smudge on their foreheads.
I think there’s something about Ash Wednesday that reminds us of something essentially human. If there’s something we can all relate to as human beings, it’s that we’re sinners. There’s something universal in this sense that we’ve strayed and we know it. There’s something beautiful about this honesty and willingness to show up and say so.
For Christians, Ash Wednesday is the start of the 40 days of Lent, preparing for Christ’s death and resurrection, during which Christians are called to pray, fast, and give alms to the poor. Many also give up something like sweets, or add a spiritual practice to their daily routine, as an effort to focus more on letting God work in our lives.
But, giving up chocolate or not, the pivotal part of Ash Wednesday is what perhaps most resonates with those making the greatest turnout. It’s the call to repent, to change our lives.
Of course, that’s what all Christians attending on Sundays are aiming to do as well—returning to keep refocusing our eyes on the goal, lift each other up, be nourished, and try again for another week. Because it’s true these 40 days, each Sunday, and Ash Wednesday that we’re all sinners. We all desperately need what we don’t deserve. It’s mercy, and it’s available for the taking, direct from the source of all Love, in limitless supply, every week and every day. All we need is to come and ask.
Consider this your Facebook reminder that someone has a birthday today…it’s Buddha!
Buddha and what he exemplifies means a lot to millions of people around the world.
Buddha’s real name is Siddhartha Guatama and was an actual person who was born on April, 8th around the year 563 BCE. Buddha started out as a prince, but later denounced his crown and founded Buddhism.
Buddha’s main message was to lead a moral life and to be aware of both yourself and those around you. These principles are basics in any religion, making it easy to apply them in our own lives!
So here are 3 ways you can celebrate Buddha’s birthday no matter your faith.
A Meditation Celebration
Meditating is one of Buddhism’s most talked about methods of gaining enlightenment. Trust me, this works way better than pinning quotes to your Pinterest board! Start by finding a quiet spot that’ll stay quiet for at least 15 minutes. If that means you’re just chilling in your car, that totally works!
Once you find your quiet place, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Count the breaths you are taking and try to slow them down. Once you find a slow, peaceful rhythm transfer your focus to your body. Are there any areas that are tense? Focus on those areas and imagine cool water brushing over them. When they’re nice and relaxed, bring your attention back to your breathing. When you’re ready, open your eyes and take note of how you feel. You can use this quick meditation as a way to wind down, or start going more in depth with your thoughts. It’s all up to you!
Pat on the Back
Buddhism is all about being self-aware, and recognizing both your faults and successes! So, we’re gonna write ourselves a letter of recommendation!
Yes, I am totally serious.
I want you to write a letter about why you’re qualified for this “job” called life. Write down what strengths you are proud of, and what life experiences have helped you get to where you are now.
Next, I want you to answer the dreaded interview question, “What are your weaknesses?” Take some time thinking through this, but make sure not to punish yourself for your weakness. No one’s perfect, so don’t put that expectation on yourself! Find ways you can turn a happy weakness into a happy strength, then go out and make it happen!
Pat Someone Else’s Back
Not just anyone’s back…but an enemy’s back.
I know a name just popped into your head. One popped into mine, too!
Take a few minutes to think about this person. What have they done right? What about them can you actually admire? If this is taking a while, go ahead and scroll up to that section about meditation. Clear your head a little and try answering this question when you’re relaxed and calm.
When you have at least one good quality, go ahead and pick up the phone and tell them!
Okay, who are we kidding, no one calls people anymore. Especially their enemies.
If you feel comfortable getting on the phone, that’s great! But if not, then go ahead and send your compliment via a Facebook comment or email! Either way, you’re getting outside of your head and focusing on others, despite their flaws.
After all, that’s what Buddha was all about.
As a writer, believer, and chronic Pinterest fail-er, Maddy believes that everyone has a unique message to share with the world, and enjoys finding new ways to strengthen her faith through different perspectives.
I’m a trauma queen. My therapist says I’ve been through a greater variety of trauma than anyone she’s ever worked with. Jokingly, I “brag” about it. In reality, I’m surprised I’m still alive. And, miraculously—with heaven’s help—my past is becoming the strongest part of my present and the brightest part of my future. It is in this same spirit that I’m celebrating Holi this year, for the first time.
Holi is an ancient Hindu holiday celebrated mostly in India and Nepal. It starts the night of the full moon just before spring—this year starting March 12th. People gather round a Holika bonfire that symbolizes the burning away of the bad and the victory of good. It’s a time to let go of the past, to forgive and forget. The following day, people gather together and celebrate by “coloring” each other. Brightly colored water and colored powders are thrown on each other until everyone’s drenched in color. It marks the beginning of spring. A time of peace and harmony. A fresh start.
We each have things from our past that can interfere with the present. Whether they’re mild or severe, we’re prone to collect them and the negative emotions attached. Like when someone has said or done something hurtful. Or, when we’ve done something embarrassing or hurtful to someone else. The more upsetting the event, the more likely we are to remember. And, the more the emotions can make us feel worse, over and over again.
So, using a fire to symbolize the burning away of the bad and the victory of good can be healing. Fire is often used to purify, cleanse, and change. In nature, fire makes room for new vegetation to grow and the resulting ashes provide nutrients. So, as a Holika fire symbolically burns away emotions from the past that weigh heavy, it can make room for new growth. Allowing for a celebration where we can enjoy the present.
A few years ago, I was in a group therapy discussion where we were working through difficult issues from the past. The instructor had us write down, on a piece of heavy paper, those memories that kept coming up and troubling us. Then, we went outside, walked off by ourselves, and each burned the list. The paper was thick, so it burned rather slowly. I watched as each troubling emotion was consumed, disappearing into the sky as smoke and falling to the earth as ashes. I was making room for new growth and providing important nutrients for that growth to take place.
I’m looking forward to my first Holika fire. And, the next day, where I can welcome a colorful new season of life.
Laurie Campbell can be found, on the first night of Holi, watching past burdens turn to smoke and ashes. Her celebration of spring the next day will likely be a “Westernized version” where she’ll enjoy Peeps of all colors.
As a single person, I often have that visceral reaction to said holiday in February. Sometimes I wonder why I react that way. Sure, it’s often a reminder of what I don’t have, the gratuitous PDA, the boxes of chocolate with mystery centers that no one actually likes, the crushed expectations, and so on. But if I’m honest, sometimes it’s the idea of a relationship itself that triggers the rejection response.
You see, I hate risk. I don’t like roller coasters because of the out-of-control feeling. I don’t even like the game Risk because I hate staking my success on shaky odds. CERTAINTY. That’s what I’m about. But lots of things in life aren’t certain, and relationships are one of them. Frankly, as much as I say I feel lonely sometimes, when it comes down to it, being alone feels easier—or at least safer—than letting someone in. Granted, in dating relationships there are measures to keep yourself safe from physical and emotional abuse, but in any relationship there will ALWAYS be risk that you cannot control, and it’s that inherent risk in a relationship that makes me shy away.
Thus, I’ve come to realize that love—relationship—connection—requires faith in a few ways.
1. Faith in the value of connection.
The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV), “substance” meaning the “reality,” “the material part” (King James Dictionary). So faith is the concrete action that aligns with a belief in something greater than self. Faith in a relationship context is being willing to step into a place of uncertainty, because it’s in that space that a relationship has the opportunity to grow. Connection is the purpose of our existence, and we must risk pain with the belief that caring for someone is worthwhile, no matter the outcome. That belief helps us have the courage to step into that place of uncertainty.
In one of the first conversations of a recent relationship, I was fighting the tidal wave of fear that made me want to run for the hills when the thought came, “You can’t learn what you need to learn by yourself.” I can’t figure things out on my own and then step into the perfect relationship—it doesn’t work that way. We cultivate connection by moving forward in relationships with people and working on issues that come up in the process.
2. Faith in the power of my process.
I told the boy I liked him…and then immediately panicked. I can’t do this. I need more time. How do I know if I can trust him? The uncertainty and vulnerability of that first step was almost too much for me to handle. In those panicky moments I had to get curious about why I was reacting that way, and it led me to recognize the source as some deep-seated pain that I’ve been sitting on for a long time. I was grateful for loving friends that talked me out of running away and helped me feel my way through the pain to address the core issue. Getting at the root of those problems that block connection requires faith that facing the pain will get you where you want to be.
3. Faith in constant sources.
The ability to exercise faith is certainly influenced by the character of the person in whom you place your faith. I find that my faith in God, He who never turns away, gives me the foundation I need to be able to exercise my faith in relationships with other people. The strength of my relationship with Him determines how much I am able to stay open and vulnerable to other people, because if I base my worth and security off my inherent worth as His child, I can weather the storms of relationships with less perfect beings.
And so I move forward. I’m still scared sometimes, but if I value connection, believe that my process will work, and trust in a higher power, then this is what I have to do. If I want my life to be rich and full of meaning, I have to take a chance on people, because it’s only then that I can experience the exquisite sweetness of connection that comes from two people taking a chance on each other.
Ariel Szuch is a word nerd, writer, and compulsive reader who finds purpose in a life of faith.
I am a child of the desert and a lover of trees. I grew up with figs and pomegranates and acres and acres of citrus groves in my backyard. These trees bloomed in early spring and bore fruit all winter. I played in the secret shade of their green leaves all year long.
Then I moved to a place where winter was a gray crusty thing that often overstayed her welcome, where everything froze, and everything died, and there were plenty of days when it hurt my face to go outside. There was no secret green shade in this winter.
Nearing the end of my first winter there, I was convinced I had made a terrible mistake by moving to this frozen wasteland. And then I saw a maple tree bloom. It took me by surprise, in the still-cold air of early spring. Bright green buds unfurled, the sun shining behind them lighting them up like green stained glass. Next, leaves grew—huge—the size of dinner plates. In the heat of summer, I found shade.
Today, Jews celebrate Tu BiSh’vat, sometimes called Jewish Arbor Day or New Year of the Trees. It’s a time to plant trees, reflect on the lessons they teach, and connect to generations before and after.
I have planted over twenty trees since moving. It’s a wonder to me every year, after enduring winter, to watch the trees reawaken.
In that time, my heart has been broken. Shattered really, and more than once, hasn’t yours? Griefs, disappointments and betrayals are part of being human. No one is spared.
Sometimes after so much hurt, we walk around numb, frozen, guarding our hearts against future fractures. We push through, carry on with the business of life, steel ourselves, because we must. After all, so many rely on our strength to get things done. The world does not stop turning for our sorrows, so we bind ourselves up, compose ourselves, and do what we must to meet the unrelenting expectations.
Tu BiSh’vat is for all of us. On this day, we remember how even solid ground thaws year after year. We remember that no matter how dark or cold the winter, buds swell, tender shoots appear, leaves unfurl with complete faith in another growing season. Tu BiSh’vat reminds us that we can open our hearts again, with faith that the light will seep in, and we can soften, thaw, regenerate—and grow. Click here to learn more about Tu BiSh’vat.
Rachel Coleman is a writer, designer, and believer. Contact her at email@example.com
I was 14 years old the first time I went to Hawaii. Part of that dream vacation involved a trip to Pearl Harbor, where I read the names of the attack victims, watched a film detailing the history, and saw photos of Hawaii taken on the day that has lived in infamy.
It was a poignant moment for me as an American as I tried to imagine what that day must have been like. But it was also an uncomfortable moment, because I was surrounded by dozens of Japanese tourists who watched the same film, saw the same photos and read the same names I did. I wondered what the experience was like for them; I wondered what it was like to confront this part of our past from the other side.
Thirteen years later, I experienced a little of what those Japanese tourists must have been feeling.
My husband and I took our two daughters to the library in our Texas town. The children’s story time room contained an impressive display for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. The display included a video recounting the history of civil rights in the U.S. and powerful photos of civil rights demonstrators, one of which included a police dog attacking a black man in Birmingham.
“How do we teach our kids about this?” I whispered to my husband. But instead of his voice, I heard a child near me ask his dad a question:
“A dog is attacking him, Dad? But he’s not even doing anything.”
The boy was African-American, probably not much older than my oldest daughter. His dad was also looking at the photo, though with perhaps more emotion.
“That’s right,” he said. Because what else could he say?
For the first time since our arrival at the library, I really looked at the other families in the room. I discovered that everyone else was African-American; that my family and I were the only white people there. And I understood a little bit about those Japanese tourists.
I recognized the negative history that existed between the races in our country. But I also understood how far we’d come, how little animosity remained in that room, and how blissfully unaware my children were that there was any difference between them and the black children at all.
My parents were far removed from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They were farm kids living in Idaho, a thousand miles away from that police dog in Birmingham. I’m not even sure if a single black person lived in their entire county. I know that no matter how much I read or learn, I will never really understand what the photos on those walls meant to the families that surrounded me. But I can try to imagine.
Another young mom approached my daughters and I as we watched the film. She talked to my oldest daughter, who was wearing a light blue princess dress-up.
“Are you Elsa?” she asked. My daughter, always the shy one, looked away and wouldn’t answer.
“She is,” I smiled. “She’s being shy.”
“We know all about Elsa,” she said. “My son — even though he’s a boy — sings ‘Let it Go’ all day long.”
And there we were, two young moms with children who loved the same Disney movie, chatting about our lives that were more similar than they were different. Her son did a silly dance move and made my girl laugh. We learned that our children were similar ages and both loved to watch “Bubble Guppies.” We talked while in the background Dr. King’s voice on the film said “I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
While we still have a very long way to go, I saw a little piece of Dr. King’s dream come true that day. In the children’s room of a public library in Texas, white families and black families metaphorically joined hands as sisters and brothers. We were on our way to moving forward together with faith in the future.
Breanna is the author of two books, the mother of three children, and a frequent contributor to several faith-based magazines and blogs. She blogs about her faith, her family, and her favorite things at www.breannaolaveson.com.
It’s almost time for Christmas. You’ve sent your holiday cards, baked delicious treats, decorated the house and checked off every item on your shopping list — after all, the spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving.
Generosity is central to the holiday season, and nothing says “Christmas spirit” like choosing the perfect gift for someone you love. But some of the best gifts you can give aren’t under any Christmas tree. They’re free, they won’t wear out, and they only get better with time. When you give these gifts to family, friends and strangers all year long, you’ll always get more than you give. This year, give these five gifts to everyone you meet.
It’s often said that gratitude turns what we have into enough. Maybe it’s a good thing that in the United States, Thanksgiving comes shortly before Christmas. When we take time to reflect on the wonderful things we have, and when we are truly grateful for those blessings, we feel more content and positive.
This holiday season and all year long, cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Be grateful for the gifts you receive, and count your blessings every day. Express gratitude to those who help you. Showing others gratitude will increase love and strengthen relationships.
Buying someone the latest technology is great, but sometimes the best thing you can give another person is your forgiveness. When we forgive, we heal. Others heal. We let go of a weight that brings us down, and we rebuild bridges that were previously burned.
Forgiveness may be one of the most valuable gifts we can give, but it can also be one of the most difficult. If it helps, pray for assistance. When you genuinely seek to let go of anger and hurt, forgiveness is possible. And it is liberating.
People from all over the world speak the same language — love. This year, give everyone around you more of it. Give your family a little more of your time. Pay attention to how others are feeling and offer extra kindness to those around you.
This gift can even extend to people you don’t know. Treat your mail carrier, your waitress and your grocery store clerk with extra attention and kindness. When you spread that kind of joy around, you can’t help but feel a little more joy yourself.
It’s stylish to be cynical, but you don’t have to be. While many people seem to take pleasure in leaving negative reviews online, being critical of others and being generally pessimistic, you can do better. This year, give everyone around you the gift of someone positive to be around.
Try it: when you’re tempted to complain, say something positive instead. Look for the good in someone who upsets you. Thank others for offering you service instead of pointing out how they could have done it better. Being positive and happy is contagious and is the perfect gift to give this year.
We often think faith is something we have in God or in the future, and that is certainly true. But this year, you can give the gift of a different kind of faith: faith in those around you.
Everyone has plans and ambitions, but courage can be difficult to find. Let a friend or family member know that you believe in him or her. Encourage those you meet to pursue their dreams, and offer help and guidance as appropriate. Having faith in the potential of others — especially when they might not believe in their own potential — is among the greatest gifts you can give.
Breanna is the author of two books, the mother of three children, and a frequent contributor to several faith-based magazines and blogs. She blogs about her faith, her family, and her favorite things at www.breannaolaveson.com.
It’s Christmastime, and while the holiday music plays you and I are hanging wreaths, lights, tinsel, and stockings—but why? What makes tinsel a Christmas tradition? Who first thought wreaths represented the season?
The stories behind some Christmas symbols are easy to guess, but others could surprise you.
An Orange in Your Stocking
Do you usually find fruit in the toe of your stocking on Christmas morning? This tradition dates back to the day of the real Saint Nicholas. Born in present-day Turkey, Saint Nicholas was a bishop who inherited a fortune that he used to help others in need.
In one story of his service, Saint Nicholas learned of a poor man who had three daughters. With no money to offer as dowries, the man feared his daughters could never get married. In the night, Saint Nicholas visited the house and tossed three sacks of gold down the chimney. Some of the gold landed in the girls’ stockings, which were hanging by the fire to dry. The oranges we give today symbolize the gold that was left by Saint Nicholas.
Boughs of Holly
With its bright red berries and green leaves, holly is a beautiful sight, but it’s sharp to the touch. To Christians, the sharp-toothed edges of the holly leaf are symbolic of the crown of thorns placed on Jesus Christ’s head before he was hung on the cross. The red berries are a reminder of the blood Jesus shed.
Tinsel on the Tree
Whether or not you are a fan of tinsel, you will likely agree that it’s better than the alternative in this legend. It tells of a poor family and their first Christmas tree. When Christmas Eve came, they still could not afford to decorate the tree. They went to bed with heavy hearts, and as they slept, spiders covered the tree in webs. Before the family woke, Father Christmas kindly turned the spider webs into silver, and by morning the poor family found it dazzling in the sunlight. The tinsel we hang on our trees is a symbol of that Christmas gift.
Both the shape and material of this holiday symbol hold significant meaning. Evergreen plants retain their green leaves or needles, regardless of the weather. They symbolize the life, light, and hope that continually shine—even in the dead of winter. The circular wreaths we shape them into are symbolic of God, who has no beginning and no end.
This plant’s connection to Christmas began in 16th-century Mexico. The story says that a child with no money was searching for a gift to bring to the church on Christmas Eve. She gathered weeds from the side of the road and placed them on the altar. Immediately, crimson flowers blossomed from the weeds. The star shape of the flower symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem, while its red color represents Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.
What is your favorite Christmas symbol, and what does it mean to you?
I’m going into my third Christmas after my mother’s passing from cancer. Sometimes I ask myself if I really know how to “deal with” these things called loss and grief very well. If “dealing with” loss during the holiday season means coping with my grief in a healthy, proactive way, the answer to that question sometimes is, “Yes,” but often is, “Not really.”
I’m grateful for the principles I’ve learned in the last three years from friends, family members, and helping professionals about living with grief and loss, especially during the holidays. I’ve come to realize that putting these principles into effect is a practice—a daily effort over time that has peaks and valleys, but ultimately moves upward.
Principle 1: It isn’t possible to shut out grief during the holidays. You have to make a place for it.
I feel like articles like this tend to promote band-aid solutions to “feel better” during difficult times. The truth is, the pain of separation from those we love will never go away during this life, and sometimes it just hurts. I’ve realized that over the past few years I’ve often run away from my pain or tried to shut it out. However, stifled pain doesn’t go away—it just builds up until it comes out, often at inconvenient times and places.
One of the best pieces of counsel I received from a friend whose father passed away was to create space for grief. Build time into your life to go to that place where you allow yourself to feel that pain, and it won’t pop up and surprise you as much. This can take the form of counseling appointments, rituals like a special candlelight vigil, or an evening in to write about your feelings. Creating this space is always important, but especially at high-emotion times such as the holidays.
Principle 2: Be willing to be present with circumstances as they are and create new traditions.
Tied up in grief is pain of separation and pain of unmet expectations. The separation I can’t control, but I can adjust my expectations of how holidays should go based on my present circumstances.
My kind stepmom and I recently had a conversation about allowing things to be as they are instead of clinging to expectations of how things used to be. I went home for Thanksgiving this year and had a much better experience. I let go of some of my expectations that things would be the same as they were before my mom’s passing as well as my assumption that my family should take the initiative in making sure I had a good time.
For Christmas, my goal is to create new traditions for myself to honor my mother and help myself have a positive experience. My friend who lost her dad said that her family always hangs a special ornament in her father’s honor on Christmas Eve. That idea rang true to me—instead of holding our pain inside, we honor the past while making our loved ones a part of our holiday celebrations moving forward.
Principle 3: Be kind to yourself and reach out for support from those you trust.
During the holidays, some days are going to be painful—perhaps for the rest of my life. Some days I do well, writing about my feelings and reaching out to friends for support, and some days I binge-watch Jane Austen movies and cry in my room. I’m learning how to honor my grief as part of my story without letting my pain drive everything I do. I’m practicing, and my process is okay. Having a friend who can hold space for me without judging, whom I can reach out to day or night, has been invaluable in my healing process, and for anyone going through a similar situation I would wish the same.
So how will the holidays go this year for me? Sometimes when people ask me how I’m doing after a particularly emotionally trying episode, I say, “I’m good.” And I mean it. Growing, refining processes are not always fun and often painful, but they are good. They make me kinder, softer, and more compassionate to others and to myself. They give me the opportunity to come to know myself and come to know God. For me as a Christian, that is what Christmas is all about—hope in Christ and His power to overcome all things.
Ariel Szuch is a word nerd, writer, and compulsive reader who finds purpose in a life of faith.