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Chalica, new weeklong UU holiday, slowly gains adherents

One of the seven UU Principles honored each day.
By Donald E. Skinner
12.7.09

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It is not often that we have the opportunity to be in on the ground floor of a new holiday. Especially a Unitarian Universalist holiday.

So clear your calendars. And welcome Chalica, which starts today. Chalica is a weeklong holiday, starting on the first Monday in December, with each day focused on one of the seven UU Principles.

If you’ve never heard of Chalica, you are not alone. It first emerged in 2005, from conversations that Daylene Marshall had with other young adults when she was a student at the Vancouver School of Theology in Vancouver, British Columbia.

But just like Christmas, the exact origins of this holiday are already lost to history. In her own words, Marshall said, “I don’t remember where the initial conversation started. I had been talking with a UU friend from Seattle about winter holidays and the fact there should be a UU holiday. And we may have discussed the same thing in the young adults group at church.” That would be the Unitarian Church of Vancouver.

“I went home after one of those discussions—that was probably November of 2005—and wrote something that I thought embodied our values” she said. “I sent it to a few friends and one of them created a Chalica website and it’s grown from there.”

Marshall, now 29, graduated in the summer of 2007 with a master’s degree in religious education and worked as a youth advisor at the Vancouver church before serving as a program consultant to the South Fraser Unitarian Congregation in Surrey, British Columbia. This fall she became the director of religious education at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque in N.Mex.

Four years after its genesis, Chalica is not widely celebrated. In fact it’s a little hard to find congregations that are being observant. But it does seem to be gaining some visibility.

The new holiday has a Facebook fan page with more than 1,000 fans. And here and there, a congregation is devoting a Sunday to it and inviting members to take up Chalica at home.

And what is Chalica exactly? It’s an invitation to spend a day with each of the Principles, reflecting on their meaning and doing a good deed focused on each one. For instance, the Chalica website suggests that since today, Monday, is all about the First Principle—worth and dignity—it would be a good time to make an apology or forgive someone. And tomorrow—justice, equity, and compassion—could be marked by working at a food pantry, while Sunday—the interdependent web—would be a good day to make a compost pile or rescue an animal.

A chalice is to be lit each day. Gifts may be given during the week, but they can be notes or small handmade items. The holiday is designed to end next Sunday, with a worship service at church.

Marshall said she picked the date for Chalica arbitrarily. “I didn’t want a date too close to Christmas. And seven days worked out well with our Seven Principles.” If you notice some similarities to other December holidays—Hanukkah and Kwanzaa—they’re not intentional, says Marshall. There’s been a bit of discussion on Facebook about whether Chalica is a “misappropriation” of other holidays. It’s not, the Rev. Lisa Schwartz of the UU Fellowship of Topeka, Kans., concluded in online remarks. “I see Chalica as an evolutionary celebration. . . . It seems a fun and light-hearted way to fight the commercialization of our culture, introduce family ritual into homes, and deepen UUs’ understanding of our Principles . . . all at the same time.”

Part of the reason that Chalica has the following that it does is that it has a song. Two songs actually. Evan Austin, a member of the UU Church of Ventura, Calif., wrote “The Chalica Song,” several years ago, using the same tune as the “Hanukkah Song” sung by comedian-actor Adam Sandler. Austin’s song, molded in part around names of famous UUs, found its way onto YouTube where it has been viewed more than 1,300 times.

Austin said, “I just liked the idea of Chalica as a fresh new thing.” Could there be a copyright issue in emulating Sandler’s song? “It’s just four guitar chords repeated over and over,” he noted.

Dan Flores, a worship associate with the Ventura congregation, has also written a song, “Chalica.” It includes these lyrics:

“We light our chalice
For our dignity
The inherent worth of the people we see.

We light our chalice
For justice and peace
Freedom for all, and for all equity.”

This is the third year that the Ventura congregation has observed Chalica. “Someone here first saw a mention of it on a website or email list and it fit with my wanting to help us think more about our values,” said the Rev. Jan Christian.

This past Sunday a worship service at Ventura featured a homily about adding meaning to the holiday season, and brief readings about each principle. Television screens in the sanctuary featured images illustrating each principle in turn. Congregants were invited to take some action each day this week to fit with each principle. “We hope to set the tone for how we spend our money and our time in this holiday season,” said Christian.

Last year Ventura congregants reported back that they’d given charitable donations, volunteered, and reconciled with a family member on different days of Chalica. Ventura members Michaella and Russell Seveney celebrated Chalica last year with their children, Gryphon and Atticus, now 8 and 5, and will again this year. “Each night we lit a chalice and shared joys and sorrows and the kids also drew a picture each day about that particular principle,” said Michaella.

She said the children, who are homeschooled, would bring up the Principles conversationally during the day as well. “As a parent I was overjoyed to have something that meant so much to us as a UU family.”

Schwartz’s fellowship in Topeka marked Chalica with a service on December 6, and this week it is encouraging families to reflect and act on the Principles at home. “Chalica does three things for us,” said Schwartz. “It helps us find yet another way to support and encourage families to find noncommercial ways to celebrate the holiday season; it helps us teach some basics of the faith to our fairly young congregants; and it gives us a really fun-sounding program on the day we do a semiannual meeting.”

Marshall was raised in various Christian churches in Canada, but the theology never seemed right, she said. “When I was 21 my father, who was a minister, observed that I didn’t seem to fit in the Protestant world and he directed me to a Unitarian church in Vancouver.”

She has a word of advice for families who might stress out about adding Chalica to the other December observances of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the Solstice. “Don’t make Chalica into another holiday obligation,” she said. “People don’t have to do hard things for it. They can send a card to someone, stand up for someone on the playground, things like that.” She added, “We try so hard to fit our UU beliefs into other holidays, I thought it might be nice to have one organized around our own values.”

In Albuquerque she has promoted Chalica to families as something to do at home. “It makes for great dinner conversations, to talk about how someone lifted up one of our Principles at work or school.” She herself will focus this week on the principle of the day, making an effort to talk with “someone I would usually not have a real conversation with” and engaging with two social justice initiatives. She will also hold a Chalica “in-gathering” service for children on December 13.

She said she does not feel a proprietary interest in Chalica. “I’ve let it take on a life of its own. It can either be a serious spiritual exercise or a fun thing to do. All holidays evolve through the people who celebrate them. I don’t want too much ownership; I just put the idea out and I’m happy to let it become what it will.”


Photograph (above): Members of the UU Fellowship of Topeka, Kansas, celebrated Chalica in 2009 (courtesy Colin MacMillan). See sidebar for links to related resources

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