Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
December 2009 - Volume 09, No. 12
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The Holidays

A curious mix of both curse and blessing. Also, instead of their specific dates, they have become a two-month megaseason in its own right - beginning with the costumes and candy of October 31 and ending January 1 afternoon in front of a TV set. The hallmarks aren’t as much the individual dates anymore, but rather intermingling rituals of shopping, decorating, travel, time with family and friends, time without family and friends, depression, mania, and the nagging economic question of being able to afford it (economically and psychologically). And yet we want it to work, we want the magic to somehow become real - even though the highs may be elusive at best, and the lows painfully gut-wrenching. Hopefully for each of us, there are at least some wonderful and maybe transformative moments.

Usually we’ll think of the holidays as just being “there” and then the rest is what we bring from our own lives to them. But here I want to look from a different perspective - what do the Holidays want to bring to us? What is their wish and purpose for us?  

More recently I’ve discerned a common theme interweaving through all of them. Let me give you an accounting.

Halloween (the eve of All Hallows, All Saints Day,) is the old Celtic New Year. This is the time when the veil between us and the ‘otherworld’ is thinnest - as is true at so many boundary markers (temporal and geographic). Others will call it the “touch of eternity.“ As I have heard it, the reason for wearing costumes is so that the ancestors and other dead, who may still have unfinished business with us, can’t find us. (If you look closely, the traditional Christian burial service has parts in it specifically for this reason as well.) It’s a time of passage, where death, on both sides of the veil, is taken seriously.

Our Thanksgiving Day celebrates the survival of the pilgrims after that first deadly winter, and then a decent first harvest at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. Again a passage through death to life.

Hanukkah recalls for Jewish people their regaining control of Jerusalem in the second century BCE. More specifically it’s about the rededication of the Temple after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV in that dark time, and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil."

Winter Solstice is celebrated by many traditional peoples, marking the longest night of the year, out of which the sun will slowly begin its return, giving life again to the people. It’s generally a boundary ceremony at a time of vulnerability. I’m most familiar with the Northern Woodlands Native tradition, where the fire in every village hearth is extinguished, so that only within the ritual revisiting of beginnings is the new fire kindled, which is then renewed in each home. The community is rededicated to its sacred and communal purpose, as the Sun begins again its renewal of the earth.

Christmas (which actually begins with the Christian New year four Sundays earlier) marks a time when God came to us, his people, silently in the middle of the night, as the vulnerable baby of Bethlehem - the Savior. The old was asleep, that time having run its course. The new enters silently, for the renewing of the world. And for us, we will celebrate on both sides of that time boundary, and often with a hunger (and gifts) for those we love. Also it’s the only time in the year when people will consider going to Church in the middle of the night.

New Years is our own culture’s marking of a new time cycle. New Year’s Eve, the final day of the Gregorian year, is commonly celebrated, in its final hours with parties and social gatherings spanning the transition of the year at midnight. Out with the old - in with the new. Again the boundary is frequently marked by the ritual gathering of people in high and hopeful moods.

And there are other holidays within this time as well. Kwanza is a new one, about which unfortunately I have too little experience to write, as well as the various middle and far eastern traditions.

Yes, the Holidays can be wonderful, and they can be cruel. The entire range of human experience is gathered, in one way or another - and for purpose. For some the predominating mood can be of wonder, mystery, and joy. For others it can be the pains of depression and loneliness, at the least a desire just to be left alone. In some ways they are two sides of the same coin.    

One notable element in my experience is that the Holidays always want to be more than we can ever fully glean from them. In each case the otherworld, the “eternity” that comes so close in those times to our own world, wants to share itself with us - even if possible only for a moment.

A parallel example is the wedding. Every wedding is a mixture of hope and nostalgia. People cry at weddings, mostly because it’s a moment in time when that for which we all hunger comes so close that we can almost touch it. The beauty (every bride is beautiful), the color, the music, the communal happiness, festivity, and well-wishing, brings us close - the boundary is for the moment, thin - giving us that all-too-transient touch of “happily ever after.”  

Like the wedding, the Holidays want to renew us all. Even the most depressedly entrenched, I believe, want the holidays to work somehow - Dear God, let it work! Their desire to stay away from people, from ubiquitous festivity, from the oppressive expectations of happiness, from memories of family abuse and degradation, from their own despairs - this is also truly within the purview and purpose of the Holidays. Remember, the Holidays have to do with Death and Life, with the miracles of survival, with the renewal of communities, the whole earth and all its peoples.

Holidays intrinsically want to gather people. We don’t want to see people alone at this time - it seems strangely obscene (even when some people want to do their holidays privately, thank you very much). It’s common in times of crisis and uncertainty that people want to be with other people. At 9/11 people wanted to come out of their houses, the whole world literally gathered around us Americans. When a tornado came right down my street a couple years ago, we all immediately came out of our houses just to be with and check up on  each other - especially when we didn’t/couldn’t know what was going on even a few blocks away.

We need the Holidays this year more than ever - and yet many are disconcerted because some holiday ways aren’t working as well as they used to. We can get confused by this. Some of the ‘happiest’ holiday time has been the joy of shopping - in some cases, stores and shopping malls may have been our best places for spirited crowds and holiday (especially Christmas) music. But the larger economies and our personal finances can call this into question. Travel costs are more problematic. Many households this year can’t afford Christmas trees, let alone the costs of entertaining and gifts. Children know to be more “careful” with their wish lists. But the deeper meaning of the Holidays has little to do with  glitter and shopping. It’s more about renewal after emptiness, vulnerability, and gathering together with each other.

One of my cherished Christmas memories is of my mother reading to us every year Ruth Sawyer’s “This Way to Christmas” (1916, we had the 1952 edition). It is about a young boy from “the city” who was temporarily stuck out in nowhere to live with his old Irish nurse and her husband (the time is WWI). In his loneliness, young David found in visiting the homes of other isolated people in that winter-locked “hill country,” the richness of the personalities and old stories that each unique home had to share.

That taught me everything I ever needed to know about the gifts the Holidays have for us.

Yes, the Holidays, with their gifts, want to re-weave us into their ongoing story of the world - stories that transcends our own joys and struggles. Each Holiday heritage touches it. Death and Life - the Renewal of the world - and people sharing it together.

Pay attention!

Comments (1)

  • I pray this “holiday season” in 2009 isn’t one that people will remember with sadness in the years to come. Maybe the sharing of ‘each other’ instead of ‘gifts’ will make it a memory of joy.

    — Alice, 12/10/2009

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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