The December holidays are here. As we enter the darkest part of the year, our hospital is decorated to the nines. Whatever our personal observance, our wish is to extend hospitality and to create a festive atmosphere for our families as well as ourselves: generosity of spirit is palpable.
How can we serve our patients and families best during the holidays?
All holidays are not created equal. Their coincidence in the same season tells us nothing about their relative importance to those who hold them dear. For some the Christmas season is one of the holiest times of the year. For some it is a secular season. Others do not partake at all.
However universal or secular Christmas may seem, it is decidedly a Christian holiday. The evergreen tree may be pagan in origin, but the story of Christmas is quite specific and, well, Christian! The holiday is celebrated many different ways and—this may be a surprise–some Christians deliberately choose to celebrate it not at all. We cannot assume what anyone’s practice is. The poet warns us of the danger in thinking there is a single story.
Another December celebration, Hanukkah, is a religious holiday, too, albeit a minor one. Hanukkiot (Hanukkah menorahs) are on display throughout (and on top!) of our hospital. While it cannot and should not compete with the other December holiday, Hanukkah does radiate its own simple joy. And Jewish folk, like their Christian neighbors and Christmas, celebrate their holiday in a multiplicity of ways.
We can help our families by leading with respectful curiosity. Perhaps we can inquire about the holiday they would be celebrating if they were home and ask what we might do here? Our hospitality is of a delicate kind. While we are deeply committed to our families’ wellbeing, we all agree they would prefer not to need to be here.
Religion and spirituality overlap but are not the same. Spirituality is a part of religion. Religion is not always a part of spirituality. Religions are associated with institutions, doctrine, history, specific traditions, rites and rituals. Their adherents recognize authorities within their communities. Spirituality is an expression of the universal human need to make meaning and create a purposeful life, to find hope, to express love and to feel connection. Religion is one of the many “languages” of spirituality, but by no means its only expression. Chaplains are here to provide both spiritual and religious support.
It is this darkest time of the year when we remember the story of a most vulnerable family awaiting the birth of their child on a cold winter’s night, a guiding star and three wise men. We recount the story of a ragtag group of rebels who prevailed against insurmountable odds to rededicate the Temple, who lit a small cruse of oil– enough for only one day but that burned for eight. These stories hold hope at their core. Whatever we may choose to believe in, hope holds its own power.
Here in the hospital, we see that every day.