Perhaps you’d also be surprised to know that I don’t particularly love this season. I’m actually not a huge fan of holiday fanfare at all. If that seems rather Grinchy, take a moment. I confess that last week’s “holiday” theme may well have been my idea some time in July. Sure, there was an appropriately nostalgic side to the theme week. There was also a distinctly dark side: Relationship woes, monster tales, being an outcast. I myself ended up conflicted, making it even harder to get in front of the keyboard. Should I write about the glaring anachronisms of Miracle on 34th Street as seen sixty-six years after it’s release and with a note of feminist horror? Or should I change my column completely and relay the distinct awfulness of being a social pariah watching Rudolph get kicked around for being different when you’re already an outcast yourself? The former choice was sparked by a bout of feminine outrage over some news item or other. The latter reared its ugly head when someone posted to Facebook that they were burrowing in on a cold night for this, their favorite holiday tradition. Either way, I felt like an awful Scrooge.
Our writers here at MN touched on it ever so gently, almost alluding to it rather than facing it head on. So I want to take a moment to point out that if you enter this season with a definitively bah-humbug approach, you are not alone, and it is perfectly normal to feel this way. There are any number of reasons you may feel this pinch. Some are new and some are ancient.
We publicly celebrate family, but privately grieve those we’ve lost in one way or another. Financial hard times slam up against blaring messages of retailers to buy, buy, buy. These days, this is accompanied by news stories of the employees of said retailers being among the most heavily burdened by monetary woes. On the other hand, Mother Nature has programmed our natural rhythms to respond to the increasing physical darkness of the world. Long, dark nights were supposed to keep creatures of all stripe indoors and increasingly inactive. Today it is a “disorder”: Seasonal Affective Disorder. Though we might better give a nod to our ancestors and give ourselves permission to hibernate just a little. (I’ll even admit, I didn’t make it out of my pajamas all weekend after Thanksgiving. Not merely because I was recuperating from a cold, but because I had the urge to wrap up in warm fuzzy things and hunker down in the warmth.)
I digress. Once out of the caveman stage, increasingly organized civilizations began to think up ways to ward off the darkness. The result became a bevy of festivals celebrating the return of light–both literal and metaphorical–and of rebirth. However, there’s quite a bit of darkness to all this that seems routinely glossed over. The Christian holiday of Christmas holds within it harbingers of death: Frankincense and myrrh are burial herbs. Hanukkah is less about lights and miraculous oil lamps than it is about war, revolution, and even outright slaughter. Buddhist winter festivals recognize suffering, rebirth, and redemption. Muslim holidays move around all the time. This year, Eid al-Adha, the closest holiday to winter, came in mid-October. It too involves tales of sacrifice enfolded in the celebration of family, food, and well-wishes. I could go on, but the idea here is that we are all much the same, and our various traditions all acknowledge sunshine along with its shadow.
There’s also a list of social reasons adding a dark side to these days: corporate greed, personal greed, international strife, lack of food/shelter, hate crimes, gender crimes, environmental woes… you get the idea. All this mandatory cheer in the face of various seamier sides of life is stressful in and of itself. I’d go so far as to say that it makes it even harder to shoulder the load.
That, my fellow friends and readers is the ultimate point. Let’s make it acceptable to allow sadness to infiltrate the hope. Let’s reach out to those around us who may be hurting. Stop by a food pantry and be thankful that you have enough to share. Hug a friend who lost a loved one this time of year but be grateful for the health and continued presence of those you love. Remember that if you are not in need of that homeless shelter you are still blessed even if you aren’t able to deck out your halls like a spread from Better Homes and Gardens.
If you can’t seem to stop the strife in your heart and mind, reach out. I promise you there is someone, somewhere who wants nothing more than to help you. While you’re not alone, know that the CDC has tracked the rates of suicide and notes that they are not higher in winter. One wonders if the widespread practice of focusing on the positive, the kind, the light, and the good might not just take the edge off, even as it makes any tragedy at this time of year feel infinitely worse. If you don’t think you can make it, your loved ones can’t help, or you just don’t think there’s a soul in the world who care one jot, hold it together just long enough to get professional help. It could be your local ER or church. It could also be the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Be gentle and forgive yourself. Yes, Virginia there is a dark side. We may pretty it up with tinsel and lights, glitter and music, celebration and food. That doesn’t make it go away. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Darkness and cold can make us appreciate the light just a little bit more. Even in Australia where it seems they are celebrating Christmas with beach barbecues and flip-flops, it’s not all about the party. It’s about acknowledging the fullness of the human heart in both its raw ugliness and its beauty.
This article is the part of a series of posts on holiday customs.
Kathleen Ronan is a writer and a specialist in meditation for medical applications, a harpist, a bookworm, and a renaissance woman. She is the Assistant Editor at Magnificent Nose.