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Expert Advice

Find inspiration in religious traditions

By: Scotty McLennan, Stanford University’s former dean for religious life

The winter holidays—Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa—represent different religious and cultural traditions. But powerful themes connect them. They each originated in conditions of hardship, and they each point to light beyond the darkness.

Hanukkah pays tribute to Jewish history and the struggle against oppression and displacement. Jewish families light a menorah to honor the small vessel of oil that miraculously burned in the ruins of the Jerusalem temple for eight days.1

Christmas celebrates the birth of baby Jesus in humble conditions during a time when the Jews were suffering under the oppression of the Roman Empire. Jesus is now considered the "light of the world" by Christians worldwide.2

Kwanzaa honors African heritage, culture, and liberation after centuries of enslavement. It’s a seven-day family festival marked by lighting seven candles representing seven principles, including unity, faith, and self-determination.3

Each of these traditions counters the harshness of winter with holidays full of light, warmth, closeness, and hope for the future. If you’re facing hardship during the holidays, these religious traditions can serve as powerful examples. Many people face illness, loss, separation from loved ones, memories of better times, and regret over things they hoped for that haven’t or won’t happen. Religious and cultural traditions can give us tools to be resilient and transform our lives, especially during hard times.

Be present

Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has spoken of the importance of “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.”4 It can be deeply energizing to get away from the internet, smartphones, TV, crowds, and commercial life during the holiday season. Instead, focus on your breath. Gaze up at the sky. Walk in nature. Experience the grandeur of the universe. There are many meditative and self-reflection practices that have been shown to reduce stress and help us find a positive mindset, leaving us feeling reinvigorated. Thich Nhat Hanh calls them “practices of resurrection.”5 Here’s an easy way to start: take 10 minutes every day to sit in a quiet place and watch a candle flicker. Then write in a journal each night about something that made you feel grateful that day.

Spend time around babies

Babies remind us that, even in the midst of the deepest darkness and greatest struggle, hope abounds. The poet May Sarton encourages us to “be the always hopeful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth.”6 There is a natural power of newborns to fill us with wonder and remind us that life constantly renews itself. We see this theme in religious scripture: the Jewish prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light...for unto us a child is born”7 with hope that he would become a “Prince of Peace.” A similar hope was expressed at the time of Jesus’s birth8 more than 700 years later.9 If you can, find a way to be in the presence of babies this season. Offer to babysit for a friend. Sign up to care for infants during your church services. Volunteer to comfort babies at a hospital.

Help others

Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa all celebrate overcoming social oppression. Many people find meaning in standing with the poor, hungry, sick, homeless, and dispossessed during this time of year. The Dalai Lama has spent his life spreading the message that practicing compassion and doing good for others are means to achieve personal happiness in the here and now—and scientific research backs that up.10 This holiday, consider volunteering for a food program, visit a hospital, help out at a homeless shelter, or welcome people to our country at a local immigrant center. It’s ironic, but getting outside of ourselves in service to others is one of the best ways to feel personal satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy. You can find out how to take the first step toward giving back here.

Sing praises—literally

The December holidays are filled with music. Psalm 98 in the Hebrew Bible encourages us to “make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.”11 The American folk group Peter, Paul and Mary encourages Jewish children, and the rest of us, to “light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn't die.”12 Christmas carols proclaim “Joy to the World” and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." The holidays are also a great time to listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which includes the magnificent "Ode to Joy," and Handel's “Messiah,” full of hallelujahs.

This holiday, find ways to sing or listen to good music. It will be hard not to be lifted up, even if just for the moment. Join your church choir, go to a holiday concert, hit play on your favorite holiday album, or watch a holiday musical.

Savor everyday moments of joy

Rabbi Harold Kushner interpreted the biblical book of Ecclesiastes in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.13 The phrase “eat, drink, and be merry” is repeated half a dozen times in Ecclesiastes. That book spends a lot of time telling us how much of life is vanity or emptiness—including riches, pleasure-seeking, beautiful houses, sex, busyness, political power, and clever speech. But appreciating the small, everyday aspects of life is valuable and meaningful: “It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”14 Holding tight to material things is not the path to happiness. Rather, letting go and appreciating life as it unfolds is the source of fulfillment. So, take time to notice the simple joys that don’t cost a thing—the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, a breathtaking sunset.

Keep all this in mind this December to help you find the light even during periods of darkness. These traditions can bring comfort, inspiration, and peace, whether you’re religious or not.


  1. Levey, Judith S., and Agnes Greenhall, eds. 1983. The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia. 433-99. New York: Columbia University Press.
  2. E.g., Mark 5:14; John 8:12.
  3. Smith, Jonathan Z. 1995. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. 649. New York: HarperCollins.
  4. Nhat Hanh, Thich. 1976. The Miracle of Mindfulness! A Manual on Meditation. 11. Boston: Beacon Press.
  5. Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2000. Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. 92. New York: Penguin.
  6. Sarton, May. 1971. "The Invocation to Kali." In A Grain of Mustard Seed.
  7. Isaiah 9: 2,6.
  8. Luke 2: 10-14.
  9. New Interpreter's Bible. 2001. VI: 121. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
  10. Dalai Lama. 2011. Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. 39. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  11. Psalm 98:4.
  12. Yarrow, Peter. "Light One Candle." Silver Dawn Music, 1983.
  13. Kushner, Harold. 1986. When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  14. Ecclesiastes 3:13.