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.
A presidential inaugural is an occasion, even in midwinter, where many flowers can bloom. "Three years ago, I took enormous heat for inviting Barack Obama to my church because some of his views don't agree (with mine)," the pastor said. "Now he's invited me."
Not everyone appreciates the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, whom Obama chose to compose a poem to commemorate the moment. But all can be pleased that the next president, a wordsmith himself, elevates an art form increasingly absent from a culture overwhelmed by Internet-oriented text-messaging cheapspeak. One of Elizabeth Alexander's favorite poets is Walt Whitman, who sang of the glories of America and observed in his "Preface to the Leaves of Grass" that the United States was "the greatest poem."
The inaugural poet is a professor of African Studies at Yale and a native Washingtonian, who listened to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" from her stroller on the Washington Mall. She says her challenge is to fuse the work of her muse with the creative vision that unites a nation made up of a great variety of people. Her poetry testifies to differences and commonalities, failures and triumphs in the minutiae of everyday life as well as what's grand and universal in the ideals that hold us together. She writes in one of her poems:
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I'm sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
And are we not of interest to each other?
In answer, we should paraphrase Barack Obama: "Yes we are."