Holidays or Hollow Daze

The subtle wonders and hazards of this holiday season

Posted Dec 03, 2020

It’s that time of year when articles about holiday joys, anxieties, or blues appear and everyone who writes about anything offers their advice about how to enjoy the holiday season, or at least survive it. Try though I might, I could not resist joining the choir. I hope I at least strike a chord by saying It might be useful to view the holidays (especially in the midst of a pandemic) as a learning opportunity. Holidays (originally holy days) initially came into existence to acknowledge or celebrate something beyond the self, usually religious. Eventually, they became secularized to represent a break from work and a time for recreation, sometimes still including the religious implications. Historically, holidays were preceded by pilgrimages, which had the purpose of seeking enlightenment or expressing devotion. It is this quest for enlightenment that seems to have gotten lost as pilgrimages morphed into holy days and holy days multiplied into holidays.

Generally, but especially on holidays, there is an inherent tension between doing things for others and paying homage to them vs. taking a break and nurturing the self – looking inward or outward for contentment and meaning. How we feel about the holidays is very much related to how we feel about ourselves and our relationships. If we feel joy, we want to spread that around with the hope that others will share it. If we feel neglected, that gets magnified and we see the holidays as a time for self-care, or we hope for elevated attention from others. If we feel guilt about our own selfishness, that gets magnified during these free days and we may focus on doing things for others through excessive gifting or providing (sometimes unwanted) care/assistance to them. Whatever the feelings, the holiday season affords us more time to feel them and many ways to express them.

Sometimes we get busy just to avoid the thinking that goes along with having unstructured time. But it is the thinking or reflecting that determines whether we benefit from the time out or fall into the trap we set for ourselves. This trap Is the expectations game, and it is the greatest hazard we face during the holidays.

I have written in other contexts that most of our personal and relational problems stem from expecting too much or expecting too little. This issue is even more pronounced during the holiday season. When we are children, most of us anticipated getting gifts with excitement. We measured our worth or quality of life based on the momentary delight with our favorite toy or shiny new thing. If our expectations were not met, we pouted or sometimes expressed our disappointment out loud.

Some adults may still measure their worth by the quality or value of their gifts, but many others have outgrown these material indicators and instead idealize the holidays and gauge their wellbeing by the conviviality of the time spent with family and friends. Interactions are like fragile ornaments on a family tree, waiting to be shattered by an errant word or deed. If arguments or uncomfortable moments occur, it can be a broken holiday. Yet others place their hopes on a ski trip or escape to the tropics, hoping the weather gods will show them favor. Obviously, the current limits on activities and gatherings frustrate our social needs and/or our need to escape. Perhaps to our chagrin, we have even more time to think.

The expectations we have, whether met or not, may block us from seeing the greatest benefit of the holiday season, the opportunity to take stock of ourselves and our relationships. The real gift of holidays is that they force us to examine our ‘self vs. other’ care ratio and give us a picture of what adjustments we need to make. Like in 12-step programs, we're forced to take our inventory. It is helpful to focus on what we experience viscerally and what we learn from the holidays that we can apply in the future, rather than judge how well or poorly it seems to be going. Using our time well is as important as having a good time.

But it’s not just about the future; it’s about expressing ourselves in the now. Virtually everything we do during the holidays is a form of communication (including actual virtual communication). If we don’t like Zooming or Skyping, etc., but we do it anyway, that’s a communication in itself. When we give gifts, are we giving what we believe THEY would want or are we giving them what WE think they should have? That is a communication that either says "I accept you as you are" or "I want you to be different." We decorate our houses, but who is that for? Are we trying to impress our family, friends, neighbors, or passers-by with the brightest lights, or are we enjoying the inner glow of creativity? As always, the motive reveals the need behind it. If we overeat during the holiday it screams “I feel empty” or "I can’t say 'no' to others who foist their favorite recipes upon me." Maybe the message is that we don’t want to risk damaging fragile relationships. How, then, can we solidify the relationships so we can be more honest?

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

What I am advising here is that we move through the holidays more mindfully, paying attention to ourselves and others. If we numb ourselves with excessive gifting, food, alcohol, socializing, overly ritualistic practices, or my favorite—napping—we will miss the opportunity for getting the most out of the moment and acquiring knowledge that can guide future behavior.

This is not as difficult or as complex as it may seem. Little adjustments go a long way. I experienced it just yesterday while decorating the outside of my house. I tend to go for elegance and my perceived good taste, but others will see the outside of my house more than me. Since we have a grandson living nearby and plenty of children in our neighborhood, I chose something a little more whimsical than I normally would. I felt delight in balancing those two needs. It pares down to the simple question, “For whom am I doing this and why?” To paraphrase Dickens’s Tiny Tim, “Bless us one and all” is a pretty good answer to that question. The holidays can be the time and place we find the precious intersection between ourselves and others and we can pause there and bask in the sheer wonder of it, one moment, one interaction at a time.