My family doesn’t do Christmas presents. Miserable, I know. We also got rid of the plastic Christmas tree my mother bought somewhere in the early 2000’s. It had routinely been in and out of storage under my brother's bed to make its annual appearance in the living room. We’ve replaced it with a homemade minimalist tree that consists of foraged branches and fairy lights. It hangs on the wall decorated with a few ornaments, held up by nothing but twine and the pride it brings my mother. We also used to host massive holiday parties. We would spend three days prepping 60 people's worth of food and decorating the whole house only to spend the actual party in a frenzy of attending to guests and barely having a single conversation.
We ditched that tradition a few years back. We get sushi for five now. Instead of gifts bought with the sole purpose of filling the bottom of a big poofy tree, and a party unenjoyed; we try our best to focus on family. We’ve scrapped the more conventional traditions because we realized that they weren’t serving what our family had become over the years. We replaced them instead with grounding traditions that root us and connect us to each other. This is not to say that these traditions work for other families or that we are perfect. There is always going to be the inevitable sulk here and there and arguments over people leaving too many tea cups in their room.
History of the Holidays
Celebrations in the middle of winter did not begin with the ones we know from the modern lore. Pagans lit candles and had bonfires to keep the darkness at bay and kept evergreen trees in their homes to symbolize the arrival of spring. During December, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, named after Saturn the god of agriculture, and on the 25th they celebrated the birth of the god of the sun, Mirtha. The Norse celebrated the solstice during Yule from the 21st of December through to January during which they would feast until the logs they collected burned out, which sometimes took up to twelve days. Christians adopted the 25th of December as the birthday of Jesus -which is not actually stated in the Bible- after being exasperated with the hedonistic -and rather unGodly- festivities celebrated by what I will euphemistically call their ‘predecessors’. This adoption was an attempt to end these festivities by bringing the attention to Jesus, but resulted in the hedonism instead being indulged in the name of the big man himself. It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that Christmas was indeed successfully rebranded as a family holiday in America and the rest of the world followed suit.
The fact that so many cultures have had similar traditions and the impulse to have rituals and celebrations around the middle of winter is a testament to the need for connection, light and warmth in a time when the cold and dark feel so isolating. For some of our ancestors this meant feasts and endless amounts of wine. For others it meant wholesome family time.
I find it particularly difficult to get into the holiday spirit when the abundance of awful things going on in the world feels overpowering to the nerves and overwhelming to the senses. It's difficult to delight in fairy lights and the first fall of snow when there is headline after headline about corruption, abuse, floods, and famine. I suppose the purpose of the holiday traditions echoes the purpose of reconnection at this time. It is at the darkest time of the winter that community and connection become paramount. As they do in the metaphorical dark times it seems we are going through now.
I’ve had more than a few conversations with my mother in which she said “You’d have to be a psychopath to not feel overwhelmed by the state of things”. While I'm sure there are plenty of psychopaths out there who are also struggling with wrapping their heads around how marriage equality apparently is up for debate again in the US, for example, I understand her point about apathy. Paying attention and feeling empathy for the going ons of the big blue we call home is an incredibly taxing endeavor. It gets enormously frustrating, draining, and infuriating at times. With social media our main mode of staying connected to one and other, but also the main source of news for many, it's very difficult to shelter yourself from the bombardment of demoralizing headlines. Furthermore, the connection social media provides remains an inherently curated and superficial one. It aggravates the isolation one feels in this time when we desperately need authentic conversations and vulnerability from one another.
So what is connection for you? How do you practice quality time with the people you care for? Maybe it's having a 4 hour conversation in which you dissect your lives. Or you may prefer to sit in the company of each other in silence and show each other memes as you recharge. Maybe it’s the knowledge of being known. The experience of someone knowing exactly how you like your coffee and bringing you a cup just as you were thinking you’d like one. I suppose what is needed now is the act of acknowledging how you connect, and honing in on it. Thinking back on the moments when you’ve felt heard, seen, and known. Similarly, thinking back on the times when you’ve expressed care for someone else. How do you know people? Think of your intention behind a previous act of care and think of the people in your life you want to replicate this for. The holidays are an opportunity to reflect on these intentionalities and to express them to the people we care for.
On the other hand, what does a celebration look like for you, not just out of habit but if you were to celebrate in exactly the way you wanted to, how would it look? I know people who like to celebrate the end of the year by going on an annual solo midnight walk. l also know people who like to go to the pub and get as wobbly as humanly possible. Some like to celebrate in solitude with things that bring them comfort. Think of a favorite mug, filled with a favorite warm beverage. Ungodly amounts of cinnamon and cloves. A good book and even better music. Others like to celebrate in the company of many. And some like to celebrate in the company of a few. Maybe an ideal celebration takes place in the comfort of familiarity, or in the excitement of a novel experience. Whatever your form of celebration may look like, throughout history this has been a time to celebrate really whatever you want! It’s dark, damp, and cold. That’s reason enough!
Whatever your practices, beliefs, or traditions may be, winter is a time when people demonstrate a need for contact and comfort from each other. You just might find that investing into interpersonal warmth helps combat the frosty air.