While millions of Americans prepare to celebrate Christmas by singing carols and giving gifts to friends, some welcome the holiday season as a chance to experience other kinds of holy days.
"At a time when religious observance may be declining, people who don't even identify themselves as religious set aside days that are distinct from ordinary time," Colorado College chaplain Bruce Coriell says. "Our interest in holy days endures."
For Coriell, the quest for the sacred involves both family and solitary rituals.
"Fortunately, my extended family values setting aside the holiday mania to quiet down and celebrate the sacred in our midst," he says. "And on a personal level, I've come to appreciate the earth-based traditions' emphasis on the gift of solitude."
When it's not possible to find a place of absolute peace and quiet, Coriell makes do with an internal adjustment. "Often, I experience solitude more as an attitude than as a specific physical situation or location," he says. "Even when time is limited and others are around, I can find solitude walking outside near my home or on campus."
When he gets a chance, Coriell takes off for a few days of solitude.
"I usually combine my time in nature with other practices, such as conscious breathing, releasing stress, expressing gratitude, meditation and prayer," he says. "No matter where I go in the world, I find there is always a sacred place nearby, and it is almost always empty or at least peaceful.
"The point isn't just to get away, but to practice solitude so that later I can call it forth in the midst of busyness, conflict or crisis."
Centuries before the first Christmas, people throughout the world celebrated the changing of the seasons at the winter solstice - the shortest day of the year.
Tascha Yoder was raised in the Methodist church, and she still celebrates Christmas with her family. But she feels a stronger pull toward ancient, nature-based solstice traditions that honor the past year as they anticipate the year to come.
"In the Old World, people would celebrate the fact that the days started to get longer," says Yoder, owner of the Center for Powerful Living, which helps entrepreneurial women build businesses. "I can do the same thing today as I track the setting of the sun along the mountain range from the window in my office."
Yoder will lead a solstice ceremony at her center, 635 Southpointe Court, at 7 p.m. Saturday. Like the ceremony she led last year, it will draw upon traditional Kiva ceremonies of Native Americans.
"Solstice is a time of reflection," she says, "so I ask people to write down their reflections on the year that has passed. We release those reflections by burning those pieces of paper. Then we have a time of dreaming for the year to come. It's akin to New Year resolutions but on a much deeper level. This ceremony gives me a tangible sense of connection with a universal energy that I didn't have before."
Bob Combs plans to spend this Christmas day the same way he has spent the past seven: volunteering at Catholic Charities' Marian House soup kitchen.
"This is my calling," the 86-year-old says. "This is my connection with my fellow men and women."
Combs, who does not attend church, began volunteering at the Marian House 13 years ago following prodding from Theresa, his Mass-attending Catholic wife.
"I told him that if he continued sitting on the couch and punching those little buttons on the TV remote, he would get very old very soon," she says.
Combs volunteers at the soup kitchen throughout the year, serving loyally on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. But Christmas is special. That's the day his son Michael drives his wife and kids down from Denver to help.
As three generations of the family work together to serve the needy and the homeless, Combs feels a joy that's deeper than any Christmas gift could offer.
"It gives me satisfaction to be with these people," Combs says. "I try to treat them with dignity, and they do the same. That's quite a reward!"