There, I said it. And I say bah, humbug! to the obligatory giving and receiving of unwanted gifts; mall parking lots full of miserable, stressed people dragging soggy bags through the freezing rain; paper plates full of sugar-bomb cookies deposited into my hands as if this ruinous temptation were a good thing; the dirge-like, depressed moaning of Silent Night; and the social obligation to put on a soulful expression during rituals that have no meaning for me.
That last bit, I realized a few years ago, was the key to my discontent: no meaning for me. The holidays had become a prison of hollow rituals and burdensome obligations, and I was chafing in my fetters.
Are you chafing in yours?
One of the marvelous things about being an adult is that you can—to some degree—reshape your life into what you want it to be, and that includes the holiday season. Here’s what my husband and I did.
Step 1 was to figure out what did have meaning to us at this time of year. Living in Seattle, where the heavy overcast skies and high latitude mean it’s getting dark at 4 pm in winter, the one big thing that mattered was sunlight. Just as for millennia of humans before us, the winter solstice (the 21st or 22nd of December) meant the return of light, of the sun, of days growing longer and the hope of the spring to come. This was something real, which affected the wellbeing of both my husband and I.
So, yay! A “reason for the season” that we could believe in. What’s yours? Is it renewing ties with friends and loved ones? Giving to others? A simpler, less adorned following of faith? Or maybe even a time to be kinder to yourself, and leave off the pressures that have oppressed you during the year.
Step 2 was to take what we liked from holiday festivities, and leave the rest. Gathering with friends to eat and laugh, yes, we’ll keep that, thank you. Strings of lights adorning the house and yard, absolutely: it even fits with the emphasis on light as the focal point. Upbeat, cheerful songs like Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby”; that sounds good (“Santa baby… forgot to mention one little thing, a ring…. I don’t mean on the phone”). Donations to charity, OK, we’ll do that. And for my husband, letting the A Christmas Story 24-hour marathon run all day on the TV.
Things left behind were gift giving and all the soul-sucking shopping it entailed; a Christmas tree; sending holiday cards; office parties; and spending Christmas Eve anywhere other than together, at home.
Step 3 was to look to history and other cultures for ideas of how to celebrate the season. Decorating the home with evergreen wreaths and garlands goes far back into the mists of time, long before our comparatively modern religions emerged. In Europe I’d seen wreaths hung beneath chandeliers, and fallen in love with the look. So I recreated it at home.
Biscuits shaped like people go back at least to the Romans and their celebration of Saturnalia, and may have been stand-ins for human sacrifices. My girlfriend and I put our own spin on decorating gingerbread men, and turned them into flashers, dominatrices, and trollops. It’s become an annual tradition to get together and deface cookies.
And then there are the ghost stories. Dickens and his ghosts of Christmas may have drawn their mood from the ancient Germanic holiday of Yule, which was associated with Odin and his Wild Hunt: a gathering of ghost riders galloping through the skies. What better time for a spooky tale than when the wind is howling and the bare branches are scratching against the windowpanes? As the solstice approaches, I get an anthology of ghost stories from the library, and for several nights we turn down the lights and my husband reads the stories aloud.
With these changes, we’ve freed ourselves from our dread of the season. It’s a work-in-progress as we experiment with what to keep and what to let go, but the overwhelming sense of relief over escaping from our holiday prison is worth the uncertainty.
I hate Christmas… as it used to be. I love the season as we’ve made it. Make yours into something you, too, can enjoy.