The Meaning of Celebrations and Holidays


Celebrations and holidays mark our lives with flashing indicators: These are the big ideas that matter to us, these are the people with whom we want to explore and experience them, and these are the rituals we use to give them meaning. When we put all three together with intention, we experience some of the most memorable expressions of our life’s purpose.

Priya Parker, the New York Times best-selling author of The Art of Gathering, writes that “Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.”

The Familiarity of Celebratory Gatherings

When you recall your childhood, how many of your most significant memories revolve around celebratory gatherings? Your family’s formula for living was probably embedded in those experiences. If your clan gathered for Shabbat dinner, what made it meaningful and memorable? Was your family big on birthdays or other rites of passage? What were the rituals or practices that identified these gatherings as important and made them so much fun? Did you go to a certain vacation spot every year or celebrate particular civic holidays with fervor? A return to the familiar can be deeply reassuring when change is a constant in our lives. We celebrate that we have survived to see this moment, to reach this place again. We may have changed but the markers remain.

Adding Meaning to Our Celebrations

As Parker suggests, successful gatherings of all kinds must fulfill what she calls the “Passover Principle”: “What makes this night different from all other nights?” In other words, what is the purpose of this gathering? A birthday can become more than cake, candles, and presents; it can provide an opportunity to reflect on a child’s accomplishments over the past year and to share stories of when we ourselves were children. Thanksgiving dinner becomes more than turkey, gravy, and stuffing; together with our families, we can reflect deeply on all we are grateful for—country, community, and especially one another. A baby naming becomes the moment for blessing an infant with the virtues of his or her namesake and celebrating the family the child has joined. With care and creativity, we can harness the power of holidays, celebrations, and lifecycle events to infuse our lives with joy and meaning and strengthen us with a storehouse of memories.

Please explore the range of secular and religious celebration suggestions we will offer over the course of the year. Whether virtual or in-person, we hope that all of your gatherings contribute to the loving legacy you are crafting as a grandparent.

Lee M. Hendler is President and Co-founder of the Jewish Grandparents Network.