The holiday season is all ablaze, with lights to brighten the eye and warm the spirit. The candles of Hanukkah, recalling the triumph of the Maccabees in repulsing an army of Syrians who tried to evict the Jews from ancient Israel, twinkle for eight days in the Jewish "festival of the lights." The lights of Christmas celebrate the birth of Christ, symbolizing the coming of the Messiah and the triumph of light over darkness in a world of suffering.
It's a season about survival, of standing up to evil forces. The lighting of the candles for the rededicated temple commemorates the miracle of the everlasting light above the altar that burned for eight days when there was only oil enough for one day.
The first Christmas summoned three kings, or wise men, to the manger in Bethlehem with gifts of royalty for the babe on whose tiny shoulders rested the hope of peace on earth. Both holidays celebrate a belief that mankind, beset by the evil that men do, is worthy of redemption. The season reminds us that we can -- and must -- do better.
The stories of the season implant and nurture the moral sense in children. We remind them that Santa as well as their parents knows whether they've been "naughty or nice," with rewards for "nice" of presents and sweets, candies and cookies, delicious potato latkes and plump jelly donuts.
The kids are hard to fool. My twin granddaughters, age 4, observed of the goodies they found in their shoes delivered by St. Nicholas in Berlin: "The candy looks a lot like the chocolates we have in the kitchen cupboard."
Stories spun from the events of Christmas and Hanukkah become joyous occasions for believers -- and sometimes even unbelievers -- as friends and family gather to address and encourage "the better angels of our nature," as Abraham Lincoln put it in his first Inaugural Address. It's fitting to evoke the words of Lincoln as we enjoy the season and look forward to one of the most important events in our democracy, the inauguration of a new president elected to head a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Americans take pardonable pride in the separation of church and state, which includes, lest we forget, the freedom to blend the spiritual and the earthly, the required work for maintaining unity in a diverse population. Barack Obama has chosen the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inaugural. The president-elect does not agree with all of the minister's political positions, nor the preacher with his, but he respects the man and believes that the swearing in of a new president should be an occasion of his promised inclusion.