There are no snowy lanes where I live. Icicles don’t dangle sparkling from steep rooflines. No red cardinals perch in evergreens. Holly doesn’t grow here.
Pines and firs are trucked a thousand miles away to act as Christmas trees. Cranberry sauce is a cylindrical gel. Snow on windowpanes comes from spray cans.
Electric stars adorn hilltops. Plastic wise men, young families, and farm animals gaze eternally at plastic mangers. Joy.
Here we are again at that wonderful time of the year, The Holidays. Several weeks of non-stop bullshit and pretense.
Chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping, roaring fires - all figments of some imaginary frozen land back east. Kids don’t play in piles of fallen leaves because our trees (none of which are native) don’t lose their leaves. Sleigh bells don’t ring-a-aling because there are no sleighs. None of it is real for me. The stuff of children’s picture books. Fiction.
I’ve lived my whole life in the San Diego area. It’s warm and sunny today. Things are starting to green up after last week’s rain. Sometimes the Santa Ana winds bring dry air from the desert, it gets blazing hot. We’ve had huge wildfires as late as New Year’s Day. Sandcastles, perhaps. Snowmen? Not so much.
Most of the season’s festivities come from someone else’s distant memories. They celebrate a time and place that holds no relevance for me. I don’t worship any deities. I don’t eat turkey, ham, and prime rib, nor stuffing, rolls, and pie. I’ve never hung my socks from the mantle to dry.
A few things do ring true. We have poinsettias! Our 6-foot tall bush in the front yard decorates the view from the kitchen window year-round. The pecan tree gives us just about enough nuts to make pie or two. Apples grow in our local mountains, and fall is the time to take a drive in the country to buy some, just picked, from the farmer’s roadside stand. I’ve seen mistletoe at higher elevations. I like sweet potatoes, nuts, and chocolates. And I enjoy spending time with family.
I get it about celebrating the harvest with a feast, and brightening the long nights with candles and colorful lights. I enjoy the music, even if I can’t relate to the songs. Still…
I think this is why the holidays can be such an awful time - so much feels false. We have to lie to ourselves and lie to others, or risk being shunned or even vilified. To thine own self be true? Oh no you don’t, not around The Holidays. Even if we don’t actively participate it goes on around us - the decorations, ads, music… It can feel like we don’t belong. We are outsiders, weirdos, the other.
From our first years we’re taught to ignore what we really think and feel around The Holidays, and instead be “good” and “nice” and “happy” like others expect us to be. We might spend time with people we don’t like, wear clothes we hate, eat food we don’t care for, and buy, give, and receive things that nobody needs or wants. And we’re supposed to act like we’re just tickled about every bit of it.
Tired, and feel like being alone for while? Just want to curl up and read a good book, go for a hike in the desert? Excited about working on some project you’re engrossed it? No! Wrong answer.
We sing songs we don’t believe, reminiscing about experiences we’ve never had. We rush around buying things we know we don’t need, spending money we know shouldn’t be spending. We eat food we know we will regret, and then regret having eaten it.
For some, whose experiences and beliefs mesh well with the tradition, it’s probably a delightful time. I can see how that could be so.
In my early 30s my work sent me to Cambridge, Massachusetts for the week before Christmas. There was actual ice and snow accumulated in the corners of the windowpanes. (Wow! That actually happens!) There was a group of carolers singing on the street. They were bundled in scarves, gloves and mufflers, hats, and long, warm coats - not because they were Dressed Up Like Carolers, but because it was 29 degrees out!
Here you might see groups of people singing in the same attire because that’s the costume they are supposed to wear to look like carolers. But on a hot, sunny day at the mall - and our malls are open-air malls - standing next to the hill of manufactured snow for kiddies to play on, singing about a Winter Wonderland, they just look ridiculous.
Over the years I’ve come see this incongruity more clearly, and have stopped participating in much of it. I don’t eat the foods I don’t want to eat. My family has dropped most of the frantic shopping and gift giving. I don’t go to parties that don’t sound like fun. Nothing against anyone who likes those things, but I’d rather see you another time, when we can have a quiet conversation or go for a walk.
Aikido training also helps bring the insincerity of it all into better focus. Our practice teaches us to perceive the reality of a situation. We learn to stay present and feel what’s really happening. We notice our own alignment with circumstances, and correct ourselves when we are out of whack. That constant practice of feeling what’s true for us and taking action in accordance with it makes insincerity and pretense stand out in sharp contrast.
Devoting so much attention to keeping it real has made it that much more intolerable for me to act in ways that aren’t true for me. It doesn’t mean I’ve refused every social obligation, or that I grumble at the tired cashier wishing me “Merry Christmas.” But I know where I stand, and I know when I’m going along just for the sake of getting along. I can watch it from a more centered place.
When we can’t articulate this there’s a vague, heavy sense of that last straw being added to our load at The Holidays. After a year of pretending to be an enthusiastic worker, dedicated parent, or whatever it is we’re supposed to be we find we are expected to redouble our efforts. Everywhere around us we hear what a beautiful and happy time of year this is, while our experience is one of obligation, falseness, and overwhelm. We’re supposed to be thrilled about it all, but we’re miserable, and we don’t see a way out. I think this is why people finally snap.
Some people have created their own traditions that work for them. Having a group of friends over each year, going on a cruise, isolating themselves in a mountain cabin until it’s over. My immediate family’s Thanksgiving tradition for the past few years has been to meet for dinner at a bayside restaurant, overlooking sailboats bobbing in their slips. Later we regroup at Mom and Dad’s for desert and to enjoy each others’ company. No maniacal food preparation, no travel, no heroic efforts at hosting a hoard of house guests. We only do what really makes us happy, and have refused the rest of it.
If you are looking for the perfect gift for family and friends this season, maybe that’s a good one to give. Drop an expectation, refuse an obligation. Be an example, and encourage others to join you. Invite a friend to go for a walk. Give up on gifts. Stop sending cards, if that’s not fun for you. Take a hike. Start a tradition of celebrating (or not) in a way that’s meaningful and positive for you.
And with that thought, we’re off to go enjoy a local lake… If we can avoid the traffic going to the malls.