What does the holiday season mean for you?

People often seek reasons for hope at a cold and darkening time of year. And many seek hope especially in this season of this year when injustice, prejudice and division, even threats or acts of violence, seem to rule the news many days.

Many Christians do find real and bright hope at this time in looking forward to yearly celebrations of Jesus’ birth, and for some people this is the best season of the year. For other Christians, the holiday season is a particular trial, however, whether because of isolation, distance from or loss of loved ones, illness of oneself or loved ones, even seasonal depression. Fortunately for this group, several churches are collaborating this year for a “Blue Christmas” service on Dec. 21 created to respect the personal pain that some suffer at this time of year.

Other Christians — even sincerely dedicated ones — may feel challenged by other aspects of holiday celebrations. For gaudy decoration and display, immense expenditure, enormous consumption, and all sorts of material excess seem to dishonor the one who said, “Blessed are the meek,” who urged his followers to keep their treasure in heaven and who spent his entire life among the poor. For this group of Christians, local services and sales exist that focus on serving the neediest, whether through an alternative Christmas fair in which donations to many charities and service organizations can be made to honor loved ones, or an international craft sale in which fair trade items are sold to benefit developing nation craft-persons, or even through direct service — feeding, sheltering and caring for the homeless — in the Out of the Cold program shared by many congregations in our region.

But what of non-Christians in our community, or others who for whatever reason, do not celebrate the holidays as many of us do? Interfaith Initiative Centre County welcomes people of all faiths to its monthly Interfaith Coffee Hours: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, pagans, spiritual independents and others of many varieties, humanists, including agnostics and atheists who find mutual areas of concern or interest with persons of faith. A recent coffee hour discussed the question: “The holiday season – blessing or challenge?”

Perspectives described above certainly found expression in the discussion that evening: concerns about over-commercialization and over-consumption, and the plight of the impoverished, most especially children from families without resources who may feel their difference from others their age especially keenly at this time.

Yet also shared, especially by our Muslim participants, were optimistic and favorable views of the holiday season: the time around Christmas helped people to remember and give to the poor; and that the time around Christmas also helped people — especially young persons with little connection to their faith — to remember and think of God, their creator.

Also shared by our Muslim friends at this recent coffee hour was a sense of thankfulness: gratitude that even in a season of seemingly increased prejudice and division, that very negativity seemed to stir many others in our community and elsewhere to reach out in love and caring to their neighbors of other faiths and ethnicities and languages, even in settings such as an Interfaith Coffee Hour.

Sarah Q. Malone is Convener of Interfaith Initiative Centre County. Since 2010 IICC has created events and settings that bring together people of many faiths to converse, cooperate, enjoy, and learn from each other. For information on Interfaith Coffee Hours and more, email: InterfaithInitiativeCC@hotmail.com.