Spirit of the holidays


Spirit of the holidays

by: David Hurwitz | .
Stripes Guam | .
published: December 14, 2012

Editor's note: The U.S. military community has traditionally been a religious one, with a wide range of beliefs represented among its members. This religious bent has been supported with the establishment of a chaplain’s corps and base chapels, and the saying of prayers before official functions.

Yet the military carefully words its prayers not to offend or exclude any religious group, and chaplains are taught to conduct services and offer counseling to a religiously diverse military community. Even nontraditional groups, like Wiccans and Pagans, are afforded chapel space to meet.

In that same spirit of acceptance of people of all faiths, we present some of those lesser known holiday beliefs and traditions. Readers may even be surprised to learn how similar some of these are to mainstream practices. Regardless of your beliefs and the special days you celebrate, we at Stripes wish you happy holidays.

The holiday season is upon us, and as is the custom of many, it is a special time to turn to traditions and beliefs that inspire faith and strengthen bonds. As common as the practices is, however, there are a variety of ways in which this is accomplished.

Most Americans are familiar with how the nation’s two largest Christian denominations celebrate this time of year: Roman Catholics celebrate the story of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus. It is preceded by Advent, a time of preparation, and in many churches culminates in a Midnight Mass. Protestants too have their Christmas services which, although similar in that there is no Mass, can vary slightly from one denomination to the next. But what about other traditions?

Along with best wishes for the holidays, we present you with a few them here.

Eastern Orthodox Church

While the Eastern Orthodox Church – comprised of many ethnic churches such as Greek Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Orthodox Church in America, etc. – puts more emphasis on Pascha (Easter), it also celebrates the Nativity of Christ, or Christmas. The holiday is proceeded by the 40-day Nativity Fast (from meat and dairy).

A Byzantine hymn says of Christmas: “Today is born of the virgin him who holdest all creation in the hollow of His hand. He whose essence is untouchable is wrapped in swaddling clothes as a babe. The God who from of old established the heavens lieth in a manger.”  Similarly, the traditional greeting during the Christmas season is “Christ is born!” The customary reply is, “Glorify him!” 

The Nativity Liturgy, or Mass, may be celebrated Christmas Eve in conjunction with the Nativity Vigil service or on Christmas morning, depending on local custom and circumstance. In either case, a festive meal follows to break the fast at many churches and in homes.

Local traditions vary, like the Russian Yolka, or Christmas tree; Greek christopsomo, or “Christ bread”; or a traditional Syrian Christmas bonfire. In many traditions white tablecloths are used as a symbol of the cloth in which baby Jesus was wrapped. Straw and lit candles may be added to dinner tables to represent the simplicity of the manger and the light of Christ, respectively.

Many Orthodox Christians, including most in Russia and Japan, celebrate Christmas on Jan.  7 because they follow the Julian Calendar, which is 13 days behind the contemporary Gregorian Calendar. There are also many, especially in America and Greece, who celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25. Some churches and families in the West may celebrate both days, relegating the more secular aspects of local tradition to the first.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the world’s second-largest Christian denomination with an estimated 225-300 million members (about 1.2 million in America). There are an estimated 39,000 Orthodox Christian service members, including about 28 chaplains, according to St. George Orthodox Military Association (www.orthodoxmilitary.org).


Adherents of the Jewish faith celebrate Hanukkah (or Chanukah), the Festival of Lights, which began this year on Dec. 9. The eight-day celebration  is based on the Hebrew lunar calendar and harkens back to a revolt of the ancient Hebrews against Syrian rule in the second century BC.

A rebellion led by a group called the Maccabees liberated and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem. As part of the ceremony, olive oil was needed for the menorah, or candleholder, to enable it to burn through the night. It is said that there was only enough oil to burn for one night, but instead it burned for eight nights. This was declared a miracle.

To celebrate the holiday, a menorah holding eight candles plus one more, called the shamash, or attendant, candle, are lit. The shamash is lit each night, and is then used to light the others. Many families exchange small gifts each night, with children being especially happy to receive them for eight nights.

“For me, the historical aspect of the holiday, a small band of Jewish warriors (the Macabees) held off a significantly larger force for a period of time, is important, as is the miracle of the eight days of oil. It is a chance to touch your religious roots for a day,” explains Craig Schlesinger, the Jewish lay leader at Yokosuka Naval Base’s Chapel of Hope.

“Each night from Dec. 8, we will light candles at 6 p.m. We’re going to have a small get-together (on Dec. 16, 5:30 p.m. at the Jewish Chapel of the Chapel of Hope), some ladies will prepare some latkes (potato pancakes) and blintzes, we’ll play some dreidel  (a traditional top-spinning game), light the menorah, do the blessings and have a short service,” he said. “At home (in the U.S.), my family would get together and do the same thing: eat some food, light the menorah and exchange gifts.”

Everybody is invited to attend, even if just to watch. Affiliation is not required.

In Japan, there are Jewish groups organized on several bases, including Yokosuka Naval Base and Kadena Air Base.


Kwanzaa is not a religion, but a holiday celebrated by some African Americans to honor family, community and culture. The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.” It was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach.

According to his website, www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org, Karenga created the holiday, which is marked from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, to bring “a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense.” It is not intended as an alternative to Christmas, but rather a “cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and practice.”

Kwanzaa’s seven principles are Umoja (communal and family unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility),  Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose),  Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

To celebrate Kwanzaa, families decorate a table with the symbols of Africa and a candleholder. The colors of Kwanzaa are black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope. There is one black candle, three red and three green candles in the candleholder. When a candle is lit, participants make a commitment to practice and promote each principle throughout the year.

Two ears of corn are placed on the table whether there are children in the family or not, because in African tradition a community’s children belong to all and all adults are considered to be social parents. A cup is used to pour libations to ancestors to honor those who came before. African objects or books are also placed on the table as a symbol of a commitment to heritage and learning.  A feast is held on New Year’s Eve.

According to research conducted in 2009 by Dr. Keith Mayes, an assistant professor of African American Studies at the University of Minnesota, between 500,000 to 2 million African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa.

Seventh-day Adventists

“The majority of Adventists consider the first priority is to celebrate the birth of Christ and the meaning behind it,” explains Chaplain Kevan Lim, Combat Logistics Regiment 37, Camp Kinser, Okinawa. “While there is some variety in how households celebrate – some are more religious and some less – in most homes the religious significance comes first (above the social aspects of Christmas). Not as much significance is placed on the rituals of Christmas like waiting for Santa, decorations or gift opening.”

The food eaten at Christmas may be different than in most American homes. “(The church) encourages vegetarianism, so there may be a lot of veggie turkey,” Lim said. “We follow Levitical (dietary) law regarding clean/unclean meat, so we don’t eat pork or shellfish, and use vegetable or meat substitutes.”

There are nonetheless more similarities than differences between Adventists and other Protestants when it comes to celebrating the Christmas tradition – albeit, in some cases, with more of a twist toward charities.

“In a typical Adventist home, there will be a tree and seasonal decorations. It wouldn’t be unfamiliar territory (for most Americans),” Lim says. “But there is also a small but important group that has studied the background of Christmas, some of which, like trees, lights and gifts, have been copied and are like pagan holidays. They have made Christmas more charitable in nature,” he says.

“Many churches have Christmas trees which are used for charitable purposes. All gifts placed around the trees are given to charities or groups needing them,” says Lim.

The chaplain says it is not easy for Adventist junior Marines in Okinawa to meet others because there are so few on base. “But there is the Okinawa International Church outside Camp Foster,” he adds. “I am going to hang out with Okinawan Adventists this year and see how they do Christmas.”

There are about 17,214,683 Seventh-day Adventists worldwide, including 1,135,233 in its North American Division comprised of the U.S., Canada, Bermuda and Guam-Micronesia, according to the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists statistics (www.adventist.org). According to a 2007 Adventists View article, about 7,500 Adventists then served in the U.S. military.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

According to the official website for Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (www.mormon.org), “the Christmas season is a time to celebrate the priceless gift of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His birth, which we commemorate during this season, is more than the symbol of a holiday. He is the Son of God, the Redeemer of all mankind, the King of kings, the Prince of Peace, and our joy and salvation.”

“Being a Christian religion, Christmas is celebrated in a very traditional kind of way,” says Nathan Frost, United States Forces Japan, Yokota Air Base. “If Christmas falls on a Sunday, the service we have is a little more special. But if it doesn’t, we have the Christmas program on a Sunday near Christmas, as decided by the bishop at the local level.”

“Christmas is a special family day. We say, ‘No other success can compensate for failure in the home.’ So on Christmas, we truncate our three-hour meetings to one, so people can go home and be with their families,” Frost said. “In the home, we have trees, there is Santa Claus, and we visit friends and family,” he continued. “(Christmas) is kind of a standard Christian holiday. It is Christ-centered and service-centered.”

Frost says that in Japan, there are English-speaking local branches of Mormon communities that cover the military on Honshu. There are also about 100,000 Japanese Mormons throughout Japan.


Toward the end of the year, around Dec. 21, Wiccans (adherents to faiths based on Western, pre-Christian beliefs) and Pagans (religious believers in non-Judeo-Christian deities) celebrate Yule, or the Winter Solstice. It is the longest night of the year, when the days start to grow longer as winter begins its journey toward spring. It is celebrated as a time of renewal and hope, of life triumphing over death, with people gathering together to pray.

It is also a time for joy and gift giving. Some of the symbols of the holiday are Yule logs, mistletoe, and holly. Fir trees are decorated and wreaths are hung. Suns and solar ornaments are popular, and these, along with candles, fertility symbols like eggs, antlers, and horns, and symbols of winter such as pine cones, are often seen on Yule altars set up in Wiccan homes. Colors of the season include red, green, silver, gold and white.

Wassailing, or the practice of going to the homes of fellow believers singing songs of the season and drinking hot buttered rum, cider or other alcoholic beverages, is also popular, as is kissing under the mistletoe. Some modern Wiccans and Pagans are said to combine Christmas traditions in with their beliefs, as long as they don’t contradict their basic religious tenets.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, the number of Wiccans in the United States rose from 8,000 to 134,000 between 1990 and 2001. And more recently, “adherents of new religious movements, including Wiccans and self-described Pagans, have grown faster this decade than in the 1990s.”

The U.S. Military Personnel System recognizes seven Pagan faiths: Pagan, Wiccan, Druid, Shaman, Dianic Wicca, Gardenarian Wicca and Seax Wicca. The Defense Department reported 1,871 Wiccan active-duty military members in 2006.


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