The last day before the holidays was the best day of elementary school.
After a day of little learning and much movie-watching, I would sprint home from the bus stop. By the time I got home, there were mountains of marzipan and candy-cane cookie cutters spread across the counter and aprons for eager young bakers. My aunt, our gingerbread expert, had already begun rolling out mountains of sugary brown dough. My grandfather and little sister made their famous chocolate crinkle cookies with the precision and skill of trained scientists.
My memories of the holidays usually involved wearing fuzzy Hannukah socks and watching my cousins unwrap Lego sets and excavator trucks in a dizzying snowfall of wrapping paper and bows. And it wouldn’t be the holidays without a freezing cold round of H-O-R-S-E in our driveway that my Dad would always win on a three-point shot.
I come from a family of many different religions. I celebrated Hanukkah and my cousins celebrated Christmas. My lights were candles on the menorah and their lights were wrapped around a tree. I went to synagogue and they went to church. What I remember most about the holidays wasn’t who celebrated what, but about being together to celebrate whatever.
This year, like many Americans, I won’t see my extended family on December 25. I now live halfway across the country and want to keep my extended family safe from Omicron; yet the loss of tradition makes me feel sad. I’ve been trying to recreate the blended pre-pandemic holiday rituals, blasting the Pentatonix Christmas Album while I deep-fry Hanukkah latkes in my college dorm.
But it doesn’t quite feel the same.
A reformed holiday hater
Last year, I made fun of people who fully embrace the holiday season. I didn’t understand how you could turn off the news and scream-sing in the car to “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” I wasn’t able to tune out the world around me and all of its misery. I was resentful for a semester of online classes and for moving across the country, far away from my family and my traditions. It even felt callous and disrespectful to put out cookies and light candles when horrible tragedy was present all around us. When the world felt impossible, the whole idea of holidays seemed like a farce.
My attitude towards the holiday cheer last year was some crossover between J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge. As both those famous characters would agree, the holidays can be a difficult time.
How are we supposed to come together over latkes on Hanukkah or buttery rolls on Christmas Eve and reflect on the abundant blessings in our lives when the year has been so hard? How can we embrace the spirit of the season with an empty chair at our tables?
I thought the uncertainty and sadness that permeated last winter would be long gone by now. But the 2021 holiday season is receiving us fresh from nearly two years of global disease and personal worry, a semester of burnout and exhaustion and the continued rise of another COVID-19 strain. The “coming together” and “tradition” part of the holidays still feels just out of reach this year.
If, like me, you find yourself feeling a bit lost and low-spirited during this holiday season and overwhelmed by what’s going on around us, might I suggest taking a deep breath and just diving in.
Giving in is okay
Celebrating around this time of year is part of being human. In ancient Rome, the end of the autumn season was marked with the Saturnalia festival, which involved parties and gifts. In a poem by Lucian of Samosata, the god Saturn says “during my week the serious is barred: no business allowed.” Centuries later came Yule, the pagan ritual celebrating the beginning of winter (and, for all my Harry Potter fans, the namesake of the much more important Yule Ball).
This difficult year has helped me to appreciate the gift of ritual. In the days when you can barely understand the sadness in the world around you and struggle to find the will to get up in the morning, ritual can keep you going. The prescribed motions of ritual can help you keep moving; anchor you to life. The ritual around the holidays assigns you a role to play, and in the acting, some part of the role may become real.
Enjoy something cheesy
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Hallmark Christmas movies and Christmas pop on the Radio are for middle-aged women with the Kate Gosselin haircut who unironically say “cool beans.” You would be right. Cheesy Hallmark movies and Ariana Grande ballads about Santa are absolutely not made with you, the extremely intelligent and witty reader in mind—that’s why they’re perfect.
You can listen and watch with a college student’s critical eye, fully expecting to make fun of the holiday-hating professional woman who finds love where she least expects it. You can point out all the tropes that you learned in high school English class and sigh in disapproval. You can fall asleep in the middle of one cheesy romance and wake up in the middle of the next, and it’ll probably be a while before you even notice. But at the climax, when the devastatingly good-looking leads give in to their feelings at the Christmas Tree Lighting Competition, your heart might grow three sizes too. Surrender to it.
The idea that the holidays can be celebrated secularly today is obvious in many ways. Many of our favorite holiday hits—’Let it Snow,’ ‘Jingle Bells”—don’t mention anything religious. Even if they are a temporary escape, cheer and festivities and cheesy movies are an opportunity to rest, relax and be happy.
‘Tis the season and the world is on fire, so you might as well just sit back and enjoy some holiday magic.
I’m not necessarily arguing that my new habit of watching every remake of “The Grinch” is what you should spend your holidays doing, but there’s something a little freeing about discarding the image of someone who’s “too cool” to care. This year, I can’t channel my holiday excitement into friend group gift exchanges or family cookie-decorating marathons. I just have to sit with it, feeling a little insane every time I catch myself Googling “Elf costume for medium-sized dog.”
Maybe it will be years before the days of cookie decorating and big Hanukkah latke dinners with my entire family can resume. Maybe my family will never gather around the table the same way we did before. Maybe the holidays will never feel completely normal again. And that’s okay.
For the Jews, the Maccabees’ story and the legend of the oil that burned eight days signals the possibility that with dedication, faith, and love, we can reshape history. For Christians, the birth of Jesus kindles the hope that personal redemption and healing remain within our grasp. For those who don’t follow a religion, the holidays signal an opportunity for renewal and rest.
This holiday season, each of us will find our own lights—on our menorahs, in our windows, on our Christmas trees or maybe the homes of our loved ones.
This holiday season, each of us should embrace the corny, the cheesy, the commercial. This, and every, holiday season, it is okay to sing Christmas hits at the top of your lungs or turn on another Adam Sandler Hanukkah special.
After all, we could all use a little holiday magic.