I can’t quite get into the spirit of holidays like many others do. The same old festivities on a specific day of each year appear inauthentic. The artificial cheer, the clothing, the costumes, the tired symbolism—all seem to feed our hunger for superficial comforts. The food, the gifts, the decorations—they satisfy the glut of consumerism on which we are raised.
But sometimes, I feel the charm of Christmas, of Halloween, of Independence Day. And winter holidays, for some reason, always feel special. Before now, I didn’t really consider the source of that charm, easily sliding into the comforts of the season with everyone else, despite my misgivings about them. Was it the gathering of family? The histories and traditions that often go overlooked? The anticipation of travel, of breaking the routine of life for 24 hours or more?
My repressed enjoyment of holidays stems from a little bit of all of these. I do enjoy reconnecting with family members, analyzing traditions, and reveling in the novelty of a special day. But more importantly, I have realized that I enjoy holidays because they give us a time for stories.
Without stories, holidays would not exist. Holidays symbolize stories, reminding us of something supposedly important that occurred in the past, or something deemed important to the perpetuation of life: Fires lit in winter to welcome back the sun. A savior born. A battle won. A resurrection. A rebirth. A revolution.
Holidays give us a time to remember what brought us here. Sometimes, those stories are wicked. Sometimes they are nice. But, regardless of what value judgments we render upon them, they are worth remembering. Some stories are collective and some personal.
Adopting the symbols and rituals but forgetting the stories hollows them out. Many people in the United States will don Santa hats, decorate their houses with chains of lights, and bring a live tree into their living rooms for several weeks, and many who do those things won’t think about why they are doing them. Many will be content enough justifying their festive displays merely as the edicts of the “holiday spirit” or to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But silly hats, Christmas lights, and evergreens in the living room don’t really carry religious significance.
We don’t all have to know everything about the traditions we keep, but understanding and celebrating the history of those traditions places them in proper context, giving them meaning as well as feeling—and amplifying both. For instance, if we read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which popularized the phrase “merry Christmas” and influenced many of the charitable values we now associate with the holiday) or the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas (which made “the night before Christmas” a special occasion unto itself and provided a foundation for the modern Santa Claus character), celebrants will see how some of the customs that surround December 25th came to be. Most people know the customs, but not enough have read the source material.
As I prepare for a rare Christmas over which I will not work and can spend time with my family, I’m not going to focus on how wasteful and harmful to the environment it is to illuminate thousands of bulbs on your roof every night for a month. I’m not going to fret over the fact that I’ve bought gifts for people again this year more because of peer pressure than an actual interest in the exchange. And I’m not going to feel guilty while lying prone on the nearest couch after challenging the capacity of my stomach at the dining room table.
I’m going to think about stories. Stories about the traditions surrounding one of the most fabled times of the year, the Winter Solstice. Stories about my family and friends who I haven’t visited in far too long. Stories that I hope to make realities in the coming year. Stories that, like it or not, shape these fabled days and make our observance of them worthwhile.