A Reflection on the Complexity of Holidays – Sophie Gumble

While it may only be November, this cold, snowy weather tends to bring feelings of winter holidays for those of us who celebrate them. When I grew up, my family observed Christmas and other Christian holidays, secularly. As I grew older and began to think about the meaning of religion in my life, I came up short with the meaning behind the different holidays that I celebrated. Even now, after going to college and learning more about different traditions, I still wondered- what do I want to get out of holidays? Why do we celebrate them?

At a meeting with other Interfaith Fellows, right around the Jewish High Holidays, we all discussed religious traditions- what we observe, why we do it, and what’s important to us. Even after living in Madison for two years, growing up in a small town with little exposure to non-Christian religions and traditions meant that I had a lot to learn. For example, I knew that many Muslims fast during the day in the month of Ramadan, but I had never heard someone speak firsthand about how emotionally strengthening it is to fast, especially with others, and then share a joyous and meaningful break-fast meal after sundown with your family, friends, and community. It was beautiful to hear the similarities between fasting traditions during the month of Ramadan and those that many Jewish people observe on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the beginning of every new year according to the Jewish calendar. 

Personally, since I grew up atheistic and only observed Christian holidays secularly, I didn’t know of traditions such as Lent, so my idea of a “holiday” differed from that of most people. However, as I heard the experiences of Muslim, Jewish, and religious Christian fellows, and in my own experience observing Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur this year, I realized how complex holidays can be, and that no two people experience them in the same way. Standing in Hillel on Yom Kippur, singing prayers, acknowledging missteps taken in the past year and asking for understanding, forgiveness, and a good year, I realized that somber days such as this, and others like it, can make the joy-filled ones more meaningful. When the Kaddish prayer is recited for those who passed away during the past year, and everyone in the room is in solidarity with those who are grieving, it builds connections that will bring happiness in other, more cheerful days.

While the holidays of many others in the world, even the holidays I may celebrate in the future, don’t look like those I grew up with, I’ve learned that the complexity of holidays gives us room to take from them what we need in our lives. The observations, traditions, and meanings may differ between faiths, but all holidays serve to show, in their own ways, that we are part of strong communities, with love in our lives to celebrate and honor.