The Meaning Behind the Season

Lewis Walker |

Media headlines pre- and post-Thanksgiving focused on myriad shortages and rising prices, costs for everything from turkeys to gas. Even Christmas trees were in shorter supply and costlier compared to prior years. But there was good news. Airline passenger counts surged for the Thanksgiving holiday as family gatherings were in vogue after pandemic induced separations. Family matters!

The four weeks of Advent began on Sunday, November 28th as Christians focused on the Holy Family and the meaning of Christmas. Advent embraces hope and expectations reflected in the birth of Jesus. It’s about joy, prayer, penance, giving to and caring about others, welcoming.

The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, took place from November 28 to December 6. Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for “dedication,” and the  holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century B.C. This occurred during a time when Israel was struggling for existence and some things were in short supply. The community was concerned as they only had enough oil to light the Menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days.

In the holiday and spiritual season of 2021, as we worry about shortages, costs of goods and services, virus mutations, political divisions and rancor, and other challenges besetting individuals and society, what really is important?  Where do the spiritual messages of Hanukkah, Advent, and Christmas play into our contemplations and future-focused resolutions?

A November 16, 2021, report from Pew Research Center offered data from 19,000 adults surveyed across 17 advanced economies. Entitled “What Makes Life Meaningful,” the report noted that “Americans are much more likely to mention religion as a source of meaning in life than other publics.” In order of one to five, Americans rated family, friends, material well-being, occupation (work), and faith as their top sources of meaning. No other economy surveyed ranked “faith” anywhere near a significant focus.

Noted Pew, “The topic of faith, religion and spirituality is one where some societies notably differ. Outside of the U.S., religion is never one of the top ten sources of meaning cited─and no more than 5% of any non-American public mention it. In the U.S., however, 15% mention religion or God as a source of meaning, making it the fifth most mentioned topic.”

When Pew by median percentage across all 17 advanced countries classified what gives individuals meaning, “family and children” garnered 38% for the #1 factor.  Occupation and career was second at 25%, followed by material well-being, 19%; friends and community, 18%; physical and mental health, 17%. Only 4% noted a “romantic partner.” [There goes Valentine’s Day!]

A scant 2% mentioned “retirement” as a source of meaning. However, retirement happiness and fulfillment without close ties to family and offspring, or material well-being and/or physical and mental health, is a challenge. Building strength in family relationships along with fiscal and physical fitness is foundational to a contented retirement. The fact that “occupation and career” ranked #2 tells you that having a post-career plan for meaning and purpose beyond work  is endemic to happiness.

Many key executives, professionals, and closely-held business owners whose life is wrapped up in their business have said that “running out of money” in retirement is not their number one concern, it’s boredom. My friend and author of many books on successful retirement, Mitch Anthony, wisely advises, “You have to have enough money so you can sleep well at night, but you also must have a purpose to wake up to in the morning.”

The lessons of Hanukkah, Advent, and Christmas underscore meaning and purpose. We are reminded of higher callings beyond our earthly sojourn which is a “blink of an eye” in terms of eternity. For those who celebrate the traditional religious holidays of December, meaning and purpose transcend self. Strong religious underpinnings help one to deal with the slings and arrows that complicate life and aging. That the United States ranked “faith” in the top five of things that make things meaningful in my opinion offers hope for the health of our republic.