More look into the 'why' of celebrations

It was December 1978 and, like many people she knew, Jo Robinson was griping that Christmas had become "just too commercial."

But unlike her friends, Ms. Robinson decided to educate herself about Christmas. She visited the local historical society and read books and old newspaper advertisements - even asking elder residents of Portland, Ore., what Christmas was like when they were children.

What she discovered shocked her. Christmas commercialism began creeping in at the turn of the century and exploded after World War I, as modern marketing kicked into full gear, she says.

Persuaded by history, Robinson cut excess gifts and simplified her family Christmas. Still, she kept on learning. Three years of research later, she co-authored a still-popular book: "Unplug the Christmas Machine."

Robinson's studious approach may be more than most might undertake. Yet there are signs of change among the gift-and-glitter glut. Many Americans are tempering superficial celebration with deeper personal study and exploration of what it is they're celebrating - whether it's Christmas or Hanukkah, Ramadan or Kwanzaa, the role of education to cultivate deeper understanding of the holidays seems to be quietly gaining.

In the case of Christmas, the holiday can quickly spell frustration for many people. "Christmas is when peoples' greed and stress and debt are right in their faces," says Gerald Iversen, national coordinator for Alternatives for Simple Living, a Sioux City, Iowa-based nonprofit group. "They call and say, 'How can I let go of this monster?' "

Callers don't just want to eliminate commercialism from their Christmas. Many also want to find a spiritual core, he says. So the group offers various courses of study, including about 200 titles to begin turning a trite Christmas into a meaningful one.

Some literature focuses on religious and scriptural study. (The group has Methodist roots but is now ecumenical, Iversen says.) But other topics appeal to either Christian or secular callers, including voluntary simplicity, advocating for the poor, caring for creation (environmental), and alternative ways of giving, to name a few.

Beyond 'Happy Kwanzaa'

Of course, America's December holidays are hardly confined to Christmas. Darlene McClendon was at a New Year's party a few years ago when someone said "Happy Kwanzaa" to her. She hasn't been the same since.

"I said, 'Kwanzaa what?'" she laughs. But her ignorance did not last long. She kept thinking about Kwanzaa and her desire to celebrate a more meaningful holiday season.

Before long, the world-language teacher at Garfield-Edison Partnership School in Flint, Mich., was reading books, attending Kwanzaa workshops, and prowling the World Wide Web to learn more about the African-American holiday begun a few years ago in this country.

Kwanzaa, she learned, means "first fruits of the harvest" in the African language Swahili. It was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, to help American blacks focus on traditional African values. Stressing principles of unity, family, and community, the seven-day Kwanzaa holiday (Dec. 26-Jan.1) is celebrated by several million people. Gifts are given Dec. 31 during the "Karamu" or "feast" day.

Of course, as with other holidays, celebrating Kwanzaa could be superficial, too. Learning terminology and rites connected with the holiday are key, says Diamond Jackson, who holds Kwanzaa workshops in Flint that McClendon often attends. Participants learn Swahili terms like "Umoja," which means unity of family, togetherness, or a Liberian drum rhythm blessing the harvest.

"They're learning about the celebration - how to perform it in their own homes," she says. "Every day you have to light a green and a red candle, from right to left. It's a festive time that we have with the seven principles of Kwanzaa. One day your family may sit around and tell stories. Another day you might make up a dance or prepare certain meals."

Ms. McClendon has taken what she learned from Kwanzaa's seven principles, which include "Ujima," or "collective work and responsibility," and "Kuumba," or "creativity," and integrated such ideas into the values segment of her teaching at Garfield-Edison."With Kwanzaa you're supposed to reach for those principles all year long," she says. "I like it because it keeps me growing."

'Training Wheels' for Hanukkah

A desire for year-round learning is common among those who start to explore their holidays more deeply.

More than a thousand miles from Flint, in New York, Lynn Polasky conducts a regular workshop for eight to 10 families on behalf of the Jewish women's group Hadassah. As part of a national educational program called Training Wheels, Ms. Polasky teaches simpler meanings of Jewish customs to children, with a special focus at this season on Hanukkah. But parents attend - and they learn, too.

Especially during Hanukkah, some parents have put on their "training wheels" to try to find a deeper understanding of Judaism. Helene Hartman-Kutnowsky, who attends Ms. Polasky's workshop with her daughter, says watching her daughter learn traditional ceremonies, combined with her personal reading on the subject, has given her a deeper feeling of pride about the season.

"We did Hanukkah when I was growing up, but it was sort of watered down," she says. "It means more to me now. The class shows how it isn't just about getting presents, but being grateful for what we do have."

Patti Peach-Lambert recently took her young daughter to a Training Wheels program near her Temecula, Calif. home. But to her surprise, she found herself thinking more deeply about Jewish tradition. "I ended up converting to Judaism," she says. "Those classes brought me to realize that it is important to have tradition - to have your family more deeply involved with the holidays."

Learning from a Ramadan retreat

For young American Muslims, too, the arrival of the holy month of Ramadan can bring with it not only a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset - but a push for intense self-education.

San Francisco resident Chloe Chaudhry, who converted to Islam a few years ago, sees Ramadan (this year, Dec. 20-Jan. 19) as a spiritual test. But she and several friends have also organized an educational retreat. For the fourth year in a row, she and about 25 members of American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism will spend a day and a half listening to speakers from the American-Muslim community. Sitting in a circle, the group will listen to and then query both the speaker and each other. They will also take time to be alone with their thoughts in a nearby redwood forest.

"If it's a spiritual experience, it makes us feel closer to God," she says. "That spiritual battery-charging will help us ... get more motivated, inspired, and appreciative of this holy month."

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