As December dawns, so do the twinkly holiday lights and a familiar hustle and bustle begins to churn around town. The scent of pine trees fills street corners, even local stores and coffee shops as families and merchants decorate for the holidays.
Holiday lunches, gift exchanges and parties are a mainstay of the season.
The impetus for many of the symbols and traditions are Christmas and Hanukkah, the two major religious holidays celebrated by Christian and Jewish believers, respectively, in America.
But those are not the only holidays that will be celebrated and commemorated in Whatcom County, where nearly 30 percent of the people in Bellingham affiliate with a religion, according to the Whatcom County Religion Statistics Profile.
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Of those who identified as religious, seven percent are Catholic; three percent are Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints followers, nine percent are another Christian faith; 0.34 percent are Jewish; 0.81 percent follow an eastern faith; and 0.16 percent affiliate with Islam. No Sikhs were identified in the survey, which is recognized by the U.S. Census, but there are three Sikh temples in Whatcom County.
With more than 10 religious holidays during December, there are many faiths and traditions shared. We turned to faith leaders in Whatcom County for their insights on their celebrations. A common theme is threaded throughout their responses. It is a narrative that centers on family and friendships, healing and forgiveness.
For Lutherans, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, which is said to have occurred in the town of Bethlehem, said The Rev. Joel Langholz, pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Bellingham. The weeks leading up to Christmas are called Advent, meaning arrival of an important person or event. Lutherans celebrate each Sunday leading up to Christmas, and each has an individual theme and color. As Christians, Lutherans use symbols to express visually the basic tenets of their faith. During Advent they use an Advent Wreath. The wreath is circular in shape to symbolize eternal life and has candles that, when lit, represent the light of Jesus coming into the world.
“Each candle represents the concepts of hope, joy, peace and love,” Langholz said. “On Christmas Eve, we light a larger candle in the center of the wreath which represents the birth of Jesus.”
The most important thing that we celebrate as Lutherans is that God loves us and calls us to love all people and all of creation.
The Rev. Joel Langholz, pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Bellingham
Christmas in the Lutheran tradition is not just Christmas Day but a season that continues for 12 days, from Dec. 25 until Jan. 5.
“The most important thing that we celebrate as Lutherans is that God loves us and calls us to love all people and all of creation,” Langholz said. “We do this not out of obligation, but in loving response for what has already been gifted to us. We celebrate God’s love for us and seek to respond. It is all about loving relationships – relationship with God, relationship with each other and relationship with the earth as stewards. These relationships are marked with the forgiveness that we know from God through the person of Jesus.”
In a year that has been pockmarked with political divisions, hate-filled protests and deadly acts of terrorism, Langholz said his hope is that this year, as the country and community deal with an increasingly divided society, people might turn toward their religious traditions and holidays for healing.
“Not as events that further divide us,” Langholz said. “But instead, experience them as healing communities that lead us deeper towards the needs of others and not just ourselves.”
Those who follow Sikhism celebrate the holiday season with many of the faith’s religious events along with the commercial and social aspects of Christmas, said Satpal Sidhu, spokesperson for the Sikh Community of Whatcom County. Many Sikhs like to have a Christmas tree and exchange gifts, invite others to share meals and visit the temple for prayer for universal good wishes to all people, he said.
Always earn your living by hard work and honesty, share what you can with others and always remember the Creator, who is omnipresent, and that you are mortal.
Satpal Sidhu, spokesperson for the Sikh Community of Whatcom County
“Our kids are not discouraged to learn about other religious traditions like Christmas, while they are taught about the basic tenets of Sikh religion,” Sidhu said. “Always earn your living by hard work and honesty, share what you can with others and always remember the Creator, who is omnipresent, and that you are mortal.”
Sikh temples traditionally host open houses in their communities and invite people of all beliefs to share a common meal (called Langar). Sikh temples around world have a tradition that every prayer follows with a vegetarian meal that is open to anyone who cares to join, Sidhu said.
“Sikhs scriptures called Guru Granth, teach us that love is supreme,” Sidhu said. “It says that there is but one well, where we all draw water from. The utensils may be different, but each carries the same water.”
For Catholics, Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, the Son of God – and it’s pretty important, second only to Easter, said Melissa Johnson, pastoral assistant for administration at Sacred Heart Church in Bellingham. For Catholics, Christmas isn’t just one day. They begin with the season of Advent, which lasts for 40 days before Christmas. During Advent, Catholics prepare for Christ’s birth with prayer and penance. Their liturgy – the psalms and prayers they say during mass – also reflects this time of renewal and waiting. In this, they are encouraged to remember the somberness of a world without Christ and to seek reconciliation with God because we have drifted from Him.
Christmas begins with masses on Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass and Christmas Day.
“After the quiet, introspective masses during Advent, they are joyful events,” Johnson said. “The altar servers carry fragrant burning incense – the smoke of which carries our prayers to God on high – and the priest wears gold vestments and the altar is surrounded with poinsettias and flowers. This is a great celebration steeped in ancient tradition: the Midnight Mass especially, which begins with a chant known as the “O Antiphons.”
The season is a time of good-will and love for one’s fellow that should be fostered and encouraged throughout the whole year. It is a time of coming together, of ending divisions, of recognizing the humanity in us all, regardless of belief or custom.
Melissa Johnson, pastoral assistant for administration at Sacred Heart Church in Bellingham
Catholic hymns have also become familiar in secular tradition: “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” to name a few, as well as classical music from Bach, Handel and Liszt.
The season begins with Advent and lasts after Christmas Day and into January, until the Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6, which celebrates the visit of the Three Kings to the Christ Child.
“The season is a time of good-will and love for one’s fellow that should be fostered and encouraged throughout the whole year,” Johnson said. “It is a time of coming together, of ending divisions, of recognizing the humanity in us all, regardless of belief or custom.”
Islam does not only prescribe forms of worship and prayers but also details about the great blessings of Allah and celebrations attached to those, said Nadeem Israr, president of Islamic Society of Whatcom County. Such days are called “Eid,” the time for celebration.
There are two moments of global celebrations: Eid al-Fitr, to celebrate blessings, purification and forgiveness showered throughout Ramadan (the month of fasting that falls in late spring) and Eid al-Adha, which falls in late summer, to celebrate Hajj – the annual pilgrimage to the House of Allah; the Day of Completion of Guidance for Humanity and the Day of Submission of the great prophets, Ibrahim and Ismail.
These congregations on Eid and the scenes of people opening their arms and hearts to all, brings people together and mend any gaps in the society.
Nadeem Israr, president of Islamic Society of Whatcom County
Every Eid starts with a special prayer to thank Allah, Israr said. “People of the city gather to perform the prayers and listen to the sermon about the blessings and reminding the great prophets of the rewards and blessings bestowed on to them.
“Islam crushes all boundaries and classifications in the society that are based on color, race or social standing,” Israr said. “These congregations on Eid and the scenes of people opening their arms and hearts to all, brings people together and mend any gaps in the society.”
Usually, friends and families pay visits to each other, and something sweet or meat is cooked for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
▪ Mawlid al-Nabi, the birth of Mohammad, is celebrated by Muslims Nov. 30-Dec. 1;
▪ Hanukkah is celebrated by Jews Dec. 12-20, 2017;
▪ Christmas is celebrated by Christians Dec. 25;
▪ Guru Gobind Singh Birthday is celebrated by Sikhs Jan. 5, 2018;
▪ Christmas is celebrated by Eastern Orthodox Christians Jan. 7, 2018.