Why holidays?

I struggle with this question nearly every year. I was raised religious, so holidays were typically a time of worship. But after I left religion, I struggled to define my relationship to holidays.

We’re traveling to visit my family in California for Christmas. This week, I’ve been getting the Holiday Scaries – the anxiety around gifts, costs, travel and, this year, coronavirus. Why do we do this? Why do we participate in this rigamarole every year?

A few years ago, when trying to answer this question, I researched the history of Christmas. What I found is that it did not start with a baby in a manger but instead with pagan traditions around harvest and seasons. This is Yule, and many of our current traditions around holly and trees come from Yule.

But without religion or a life-or-death relationship to the seasons (climate change to be discussed another time), why do we holiday NOW?

I think what it really is is that we as humans have a deep, instinctual need for connection and ritual. We need our families to gather and we need to look forward to it. So many of us felt lost without these rituals last year. We need the ritual.

But this social instinct creates a contradiction in us to not give ourselves what we need, but to instead focus on the whole. I don’t throw a festival because I’m feeling lonely. That would be too vulnerable and self-serving. So our work around is to create holidays with important, typically religious, meanings to help us get connection and ritual.

Like children’s Christmas lists and Santa Claus, we give our needs over to a god, a higher power, a higher purpose. That higher power then can tell us to gather to celebrate and give thanks for the harvest or for the baby in a manger. We get what we need but we don’t have to be vulnerable and selfish doing it. We get our break at the end of the year because God and harvests and capitalism demand it.

But now these higher powers call the shots. And now we don’t get our need for connection and ritual and families filled. We instead run through holiday to do lists because God and harvests and capitalism demand it.

So this year, I’m focusing on taking the power back and getting back to basics. I’m going to try to give myself what I need and use this time to fill my cup instead of drain it.

This is the time to celebrate another year gone, to give thanks for what we received and mourn what is lost. I would like to now tell the higher power to fuck right off, I’ll take care of myself, thanks. May that be my need for rest or cookies or family or alone time, I will give it to myself and take it without shame. This is going to be why, and how, I holiday.

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