for 31 December 2022
First, I want to say:
Happy New Year!
And now, here’s a bit of grumbling about what that entails for way too many people…
Among other excesses…
The last few days of the secular calendar are sort of lost on me. I do not celebrate these holidays in the same terms as the rest of the world, yet the rest of the world is celebrating. Like all those of minority cultures and faiths, I am forced to do mundane work through my own sacred days and twiddle my thumbs while the majority is engaged in their own rituals (and debauchery). When my sons were young and I was married to someone squarely in the majority, I went along with 25 December through 1 January, though I injected my father’s tradition of 12th Night into the celebration. But let me tell you, it is impossible to maintain “Christmas” over twelve days. Not as it is celebrated in this culture.
Because Christmas is not celebrated in this culture. This is not a holiday centered on any particular quality of our story or natural reality. It is merely excess, focused on binge eating and drinking, on ridiculous gifting, on decorating and attending all sorts of events, on checking off items in the endless list of want. And you just can’t keep that up for twelve days. Or even one day even if you are preternaturally healthy and wealthy (which… seems unlikely given that health and wealth don’t live cozily with excess). More importantly, there is no reason for any of it. So why all the intense bother? That’s all I can think in December, as I grudgingly deal with the long hours of a retail job — and yet its decidedly fixed income. Wherefore all this?
I’m no Scrooge. I like giving gifts. I am not as fond of receiving them. But I love seeing my loved ones light up with the joy of some fulfilled need or desire, knowing that I made that possible. That’s the basic definition of being human, I think. Definitely of being a parent. (Along with a good deal of fear that those wants and desires will never be fulfilled… perhaps because of me…) I also like passing on what I feel is good in this culture; and gathering for feasting, dancing, music, or just to be together is all very good. I’m not even opposed to excess in theory. I don’t happen to enjoy being drunk or over-fed, but maybe others do; and if that brings them joy and they don’t harm others in the process (which is rather trickier than generally acknowledged, because connectivity…), then let them have their excess (and their excessive discomfort afterwards). I just don’t think it needs to all happen in December — and I don’t understand the inane stupidity of New Year’s Eve at all.
I prefer spreading joy throughout the year, having reasons to celebrate every day. I like ritual feasts and gatherings honoring every season, flowing in the river of time. I don’t think many of these gatherings or feasts need take over a whole day. Most observances can be as simple as a morning prayer of thankfulness. The point is that there is something to observe every day, not just once or twice a month, never mind once a year. And the something is very rarely a reason to go shopping and never a reason to abuse your body (and those around you).
But here we are in the waning of December again and I feel lost. Even when my children were young, most Christmases passed me by and left me feeling like I had missed something critical. Or that I just skipped that whole interval of days. (“What just happened here?”…) Thanksgiving through Christmas is a month of whirlwind activity that precludes all grounded mindfulness or intentional participation in time. And there is little of the activity that is tied to anything… Not the physical calendar, not history, not even anything that most people actually want to see in the world. It’s just raw capitalism with a shallow veneer of glitter and glow.
I grew up with only vague notions of modern Christmas. I liked getting new clothes and fun toys as much as any child. Though even as a child I could see that limiting the influx of the wardrobe to midwinter caused problems for continuously growing bodies, particularly in summertime, and my definitions of fun diverged sharply from those of my parents. But there wasn’t a lot of excess in our household nor in the homes of my friends. We were all in the same socio-economic class that doesn’t have a lot of room for excess. Those who weren’t in that group, like my grandparents, did nothing to dispel the aura of normalcy around frugality. Being Depression Era veterans, they did nothing in excess, even though they clearly could more than afford it.
But more importantly, most of us were not native to American traditions, Christmas, capitalism, and all the rest combined. My grandmother’s Christmas pretty much ended with Midnight Mass, though there was a good deal of starchy food dished out and a somewhat increased need to stock up on bloody mary mix right through Epiphany. My best friend got one, usually awesome, gift when the Three Kings visited on 12th Night. Another friend waited for St Nicholas on the eve of December 6th, largely in the expectancy of sugar (though one year a piano showed up… none of us ever figured out how that was managed). Grandfather Frost visited on New Year’s Eve in some houses, but those gifts tended to be symbolic, like a few coins for good fortune or nuts and fruits for abundance in the coming year. Being among the hippies, a couple families held all-night, candle-lit solstice vigils and made a lot of marginal music with guitars and drums. Then there was the large number of people in my world who also lit candles and maybe received chocolate coins on eight days sometime between mid-November and the end of the year. And an even larger group didn’t do December at all but held explosive celebrations involving dragons and parades late in January. (As a very young child, I thought all the noise and color was in honor of my birthday… or at least my grandmother’s which was close to mine and seemed rather worthy of all the fuss.)
I can’t remember Christmas trees in many houses. Maybe that’s the blindness of childhood, but given that I’ve always been drawn to pretty things it might actually reflect the limited nature of American holidays in my childhood world. I also can’t remember any New Year’s Eve parties except those I began to hold with my friends which largely centered on binge board games, with chips and dips and ginger-ale and a background soundscape of highly eclectic music, some of which we played ourselves. (Because, yes, we were nerds.)
The point is I was raised with many holidays, many reasons to celebrate, a continual round of rituals, only some of which involved gifting and that only in a limited manner. Being dumped as a young adult into a world that hardly recognized all those other versions of the winter holidays and outrageously intensified the shopping requirement utterly confounded me. I mean, what does “The Night Before Christmas” even mean for someone who considers Christmas a season? And how do people box up all that generosity and beauty and pack it off to the attic on St Stephen’s Day? So, I have been on a life-long quest to recapture the joy, relationship and significant traditions that are laced throughout all my memories of childhood. I won’t pretend that I got on the right path for me without mishap, nor that my path is right for anyone else, but it is certainly easier to afford and physically endure. And it does last all year long… every year.
Still, it leaves one feeling sort of out-of-joint in December. Not a lot of resonance between my chosen path and the world I must inhabit. And the Twelve Days are the worst. I would prefer to gently enjoy each day and sleep quite a lot. I don’t want to take down the tree and clean the house on the 26th. Nor do I want to drink champagne on the 31st. I want to open my doors to First Footers early on New Year’s Day, and champagne gives me such a headache… I want to laugh and play games and music right through 12th Night, with a bright celebration of light on Epiphany. And it doesn’t end there. Epiphany is followed by the pomp of Plough Monday, when the tools of labor are formally consecrated for another year of use. Then Distaff Day firmly closes the doors on Christmas but opens up the invigorating energies of new work, new projects, new dreams made real. And then it’s well into January — which is its own celebration of winter and snow and stars. Time never ends. There’s always something to celebrate. And celebration does not require excess.
Even in the Twelve Days there are traditions that are missed in the cacophony of Capitalism Christmas. What I wouldn’t give to have Wren Boys knocking on my door on the 26th! (Though, please, no dead birds on sticks…) And it may have its roots in one of the nastiest stories in the Christian faith, but the Feast of the Innocents, a day to remember all the tiniest victims of our culture by doing nothing to perpetuate that culture? That seems rather worthy of our attention. Instead of fighting your way through the shopping plaza in order to return or exchange all those gifting misfires, take the 28th to sit with what all this shopping does to children all around the world. What it did to you… And if you want to honor the New Year with more than a few empty resolutions and a huge hang-over (which often fuels the resolutions…), go to bed early, get up early and welcome the sunrise with something that is good for you. Then keep that going! And remember that the Twelve Days doesn’t end until Twelfth Night, 5 January, the night of wassailing the orchard.
None of this involves shopping or superfluous consumption. In fact, much of it is quiet and solitary; some days you don’t even need to get dressed. But even the gatherings are centered on actual traditions and therefore not shotgun attempts at creating meaning through gifting and excess. I don’t like feeling smug, but I can’t help but feel that most people are going about December all wrong — and they’d be much happier if they… just didn’t. Mix up that with a more than a bit of resentment at having to explain myself constantly and receive only blank stares for my efforts, and sometimes I do feel like saying “Bah! Humbug!” to the whole thing. (Or, as the new version would have it, “Good afternoon!”)
But then I see the snow falling framed by the window with fairy lights, then I hear “O Holy Night” or “In the Deep Midwinter” sung by angels (or even “The St Stephen’s Day Murders” sung by Elvis Costello), then I smell the saffron and citrus in Santa Lucia buns made with my own hands and time, then I feel the warmth from my family and friends… and I remember all the reasons that this season is celebrated… and I am fortified against the excess for another night.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022