Parson to Person: “Between Halloween and New Year” Dec. 11, 2020

All right, I’ll say it: I love the time of the year between October 31 and January 1. There’s Halloween, with its costumes and let’s-pretend; Day of the Dead, with its remembrance of those who have gone before us; Thanksgiving, with its festive meal and appreciation of life’s gifts; Chalica (a new UU festival), with its celebration of our UU Principles; Hanukkah, with its celebration of religious freedom; Solstice, with the return of the sun and new life; Christmas, with its honoring of the child and giving. And, just when you think you couldn’t possibly fit in another holiday, there’s New Year’s Eve and Day, with their good-bye to the past and celebration of new beginnings.

Admittedly, not much happens for the next couple months. (I sympathize with the child who wrote a letter to God saying: “Dear God, Please put another holiday in between Christmas and Easter. There’s nothing good in there now.”) Still, by the time New Year comes around, I’m sort of celebrated out. (Aren’t you?)

Because I enjoy word origins so much, I offer you several etymological reflections on this season:

“Halloween” comes from “hallow” (meaning “holy,” as in “hallowed be thy name”) and “e’en” (which is short for “even,” or “evening”). Hallowe’en was the eve before All Hallows’ Day (“hallows” being holy people, otherwise known as “saints”–from “sancti” in Latin). So, after All Hallows’ Eve comes All Hallows’ Day (or All Saints Day), followed by All Souls’ Day. In Mexico these two days became Dias de los Muertos (“Days of the Dead”). So this is a time to remember the holy people (saints) around you (as well as the souls who maybe weren’t so holy but are still worth remembering!).

“Chalica” comes from the Latin “calix,” meaning “cup,” and refers to our UU flaming-chalice symbol.

“Solstice” comes from “sol” (meaning “sun”) and “stice” (meaning “stands still”). When the sun stands still, it’s a good time for us to be still too–and reflect on the year past as well as the year to come.

“Hanukkah” is Hebrew for “dedication,” and it refers to the re-dedication of the Temple in 165 BCE, when the Jewish people won back their freedom of worship. Let us be ever grateful for this freedom too–it is particularly at risk in today’s world.

“X-mas” is not a disrespectful version of Christmas–it’s merely an abbreviated one. In Greek, X is Chi (“Ch” in English) and stands for “Christ” (which is from the Greek word “Christos,” meaning “anointed,” and is in turn a translation of the Hebrew “Meshiakh,” from which we get our word “Messiah”). There’s a Jewish proverb that says, “If you think of the person next to you as the Messiah, you will treat them with the respect you should give. Then, if it turns out that that person is the Messiah, you will have done right. And if not, you will still have done right.” (Kind of an ancient version of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” don’t you think?)

Speaking of Christmas, does this season ever feel like bedlam to you? Well, bedlam today means noisy confusion. But it comes from the word “Bethlehem.” What???  Well, years ago there was an insane asylum in London named “St. Mary of Bethlehem.” Because of the disorder in the place, and because British English sometimes shortened words (or simplified their pronunciation), “Bethlehem” became “Bedlem,” which is now spelled “bedlam.”  So in the confusion and crush of this holiday season, let us not let Bethlehem become bedlam but remember the angel song “Peace on earth, goodwill to all.”

Finally, as we approach a new year, remember that the word “holiday” itself comes from “holy day.” So as you think about how you will be new (and renew) in 2021, be aware of the holly in the holy, and the holy in the holly.

Happy Holi-(Holy) Days, everyone–and, of course…

peace and unrest,

tony