I consider myself fortunate to have a stash of warm, fuzzy holiday memories, carefully folded into the mental cedar chest that holds my childhood. However, I’m not naïve enough to discount the fact that I have infused these bayberry-scented recollections with more beauty and fluffy nostalgia than they deserve. And isn’t this the case for memories in general? We tend to skew specifics in hindsight, seeing through hued lenses of our own design.
One of the many problems with this human tendency, especially as it relates to holidays, is that it creates expectation. This is reinforced by immense societal pressure, as addressed so articulately by my dear friend in his recent post here. (Thank you, Tony!) The mixture proves lethal to holiday cheer for many, and places people along a spectrum that encompasses everything from irritation to utter, all-encompassing despair.
The concept of enforced joviality is more than a little ludicrous, after all. If we really wanted to socialize and give gifts and catch up with extended family, wouldn’t we do so without a holiday as an excuse? How many items do we buy because we must wrap up something? How many parties do we attend, manufactured smile firmly in place? I recently used the term “fauxcializing,” and I think that it’s particularly applicable to this time of year. I’m all for the appreciation of fellow humans, but the fact that we do so based solely on perceived obligation due to a holiday seems disingenuous.
It’s as though we are all subscribing to some mid-winter shared delusion of joy. Gratuitous excess. Enforced charity. Deep down, or perhaps closer to the surface in some cases, we all know that what we do is because of how things are supposed to be. Tradition and slick marketing have perpetuated the myth that iconic rituals bring universal happiness. And as Tony touched on, people feel the need to enforce this perception by shaming those who express anything less than ecstasy in response to ugly sweaters and cookie exchanges.
And frankly, I don’t even want to venture into the quagmire of secular vs. religious celebration and the nastiness that goes on there. It gives me a headache. Basically, the name of the game this time of year is not peace, joy, love. Rather, it’s a test in keeping up appearances. The most stunning tree in the world can’t make up for the fact that your parents don’t speak to you because you’re gay. Or atheistic. Or didn’t take up the family profession. Elaborate gifts can never compensate for a crumbling marriage or a lost love.
While there are those among us who find more enjoyment than stress this time of year, and those who are capable of navigating with a drink in one hand and an abundance of eye-rolls at the ready, there are others for which the season presents a genuine formidable challenge. Those who exist on the end of the spectrum that houses a yawning pit of anguish, where the idea of mustering a shiny tinsel-thin veneer of merriment is too overwhelming to contemplate.
Please. Be kind. Not by attempting to foist on these individuals a heaping helping of holiday spirit, but rather offering refuge from the storm. A harbor of empathy. One where it is okay to refrain, or to let down the guard and express true emotion. We are collectively set up for failure this time of year with the frenzied expectation of constant and unrelenting happiness. This is merely a magnification of an attitude that all too often pervades our lives. As I was composing this post, another treasured friend was writing this, (thank you, Mike!) which discusses the phenomenon beautifully. We are, and remain, fragile and flawed risen apes. Let us not lose our humanity in the name of primitive celebration gone mad.