Jesus and Santa— in That Order

Jesus and Santa— in That Order

Sarah Shanoudy

When I tell people I am Coptic Orthodox, what follows is usually a blank stare or a polite head nod. Some people hear the word Orthodox and assume Jewish whereas others suppose since I am a second generation Egyptian American that I must be Muslim. I usually say Copts are like the Greek Orthodox, only Egyptian. That typically yields an enthusiastic “ohhh I see.”

Being a Coptic Orthodox Christian is part of my identity yet in many ways, it is difficult for me to explain my faith. My parents always found it especially important to make sure we were faith-filled people. I have a vivid memory of when I was 6 or 7 telling my mother that I was going to be especially good that year. When she asked why, I answered because I wanted nice gifts from Santa. She immediately responded with an irritated, “You should be good for Jesus, not Santa.” Although she didn’t know it, those words weighed on me. I wondered whether it was possible to be good for both Jesus and Santa. This struggle to balance spiritual with popular culture has stayed with me long past the days of believing in Santa.

My faith is difficult to explain not because people usually have no idea what Coptic Orthodoxy is but because navigating centuries-old traditions in a modern fast paced world is a challenge. Many of the practices and traditions in the Coptic Church may seem outdated, antiquated, or quite frankly, unnecessary. Why do men and women sit on opposite sides of the church? Why do women cover their heads? Or take, for example, the length of our liturgies.

Sunday liturgies are three hours long. Gasp. There I said it. How can people possibly be expected to sit (or mostly stand) through a two to three-hour-long service in this day and age? (You don’t even want to hear how long holiday services are.) It is hardly feasible to assume that people do not have busy lives and full schedules that demand attention. I work full time as well as pursue my master’s on a full-time basis so setting aside one hour of the day is hard enough. Setting aside three sometimes feels impossible.

But what if I framed it differently? What if I told myself I was fortunate enough to set aside three hours during the week where I disconnect from my hectic life and plug into a different world—a much slower and deliberate kind of place? This is a place where I can leave all my stress, worries, doubts, and fears at the door. This is a place where I can think, reflect, and share in something with others that is bigger than myself. Three hours to simply think and pray. When I frame it differently, I begin to appreciate the gifts my faith brings me that technology cannot.

That’s not to say it is easy. Most days, it is very hard to find a balance. I don’t believe that technology or our culture is the enemy. In fact, I am a full blown iPhone using, Game of Thrones watching, wine sipping, lip gloss wearing kind of girl. I blend in with everyone else attempting to navigate adulting in our mid-twenties. However, by incorporating little acts of faith my life, like a three-hour liturgy on Sunday or even a daily morning prayer, I realize that, yes, it is possible to have both Jesus and Santa, in that order.

Sarah Shanoudy is a graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. where she is pursuing a degree in Communication, Culture, and Technology.

5 Uncommon Gifts to Give This Christmas

5 Uncommon Gifts to Give This Christmas

By Breanna Olaveson, FaithCounts.com Contributor

uncommon-giftIt’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.

1. Gratitude

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.

2. Forgiveness

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.

3. Love

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.

4. Positivity

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.

5. Faith

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.

Surprising Meanings Behind Christmas Symbols

Surprising Meanings Behind Christmas Symbols

By Sarah Eyring, FaithCounts.com Contributor

holly-art-640x360It’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.

Evergreen Wreaths

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.

Poinsettias

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?