Thoughts on navigating the dark days of the Yuletide.
As a parent, I engaged in no deceptions about Santa Claus. My kids probably realized there is no Santa the same time I did; that is, at about 8 years old. A parent doesn’t have to actively deceive their child. A child is capable of wonder without lies.
But think of it from the perspective of the little Catholic boy, whose parents adhere to papal infallibility and the necessity of the intercession of the church in salvation, who has been asked to believe in a virgin birth, a sinless god/man who walked on water, performed miracles and raised the dead, himself included.
That litany makes Santa Claus seem almost plausible. If the parents act like they believe it, why wouldn’t the children believe it, too? The parallels are obvious.
Flying reindeer? Angels. The North Pole? Heaven. Rudolph? John the Baptist. My impressionable mind deconstructed and synthesized all those stories. I listened to the songs: “Greensleeves,” “Night,” and “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Who knew what was real about Christmas? But with deepening dark and cold and snow, the feeling of December was dreamlike possibility.
Then add the next layer of bizarreness surrounding Christmas, an explosion of materialistic grabbing, a commercial, profit-motivated extravaganza, when one is given license to indulge in buying things (electronic, mass-produced) and spending money.
Not just given license, but actively manipulated to think, “We should buy things. They’re on sale.” As if Christmas was meant to be the time when inhibitions should be unleashed and we should just take whatever we can get our hands on, whatever the TV says is good.
And then there’s family.
I’ve always been a go-along-to-get-along kind of family guy. I don’t cultivate animosity and I don’t hold grudges in my immediate family. But the remorseless passage of time has brought challenges to so many of my individual relations, adding layers of dread to my anticipations of Yuletide. I almost want to turn away from my relations and in-laws around the holidays. It’s just an excuse for the display of neuroses, my own shameful ones foremost.
But there is a spirit to Christmas. Something pervades all the cultural dross, the tsunami of dukkha. I think it starts with the darkness.
Primitive man, and his pre-Anthropocene forebears, recognized the bent-out-of-shape nature of winter solstice. It must have felt like four weeks of full moons to them. They coped with it poorly, like we do today. So they developed pagan rituals around trees and snowmen.
In the 21st century seasonal affective disorder has been recognized, which makes me happy. I don’t take anything for it, other than booze and, well, I self-medicate. I have a natural propensity to melancholy. Seasonal affect is like an endlessly large helping of cold gravy.
In the days leading up to Christmas, we’re at an extreme of isolation and hibernation. Each day shimmers too briefly, sideways light, with night close at its edges. Life is narrowed and cloistered. We’re alone and we’ll be lucky to get through. We have small comforts (songs about fire, bright colors, the smells of food) to combat the existential truth (cold and dark are not just metaphors). That, to me, is the stripped-down version of the holiday.
When we take away all the nonsense, Christmas is the recognition of the ephemerality of time, about our inability to surmount nature’s chronological forces of decay and creation. This is why my mind (any rational mind) recoils from the layers of human civilization encrusted over “the holidays.”
Deep inside our ersatz celebrations resides a primal awareness; humans, social animals, WE need to provoke ourselves out of psychological and physical torpor during the darkest days of the year. We have to gather around and help each other through it. It’s like climbing into a bunker.
We are literally all we have, so we bond ourselves in traditions, that the young may revile, which can be corporatized and monetized to deflect our attention from the true realization: This is the way life ends.
But it’s also the way life begins again. From the darkness and ice, spring is bound to release life-giving water, another season of growth and development will commence. However, it remains to be seen whether climate change will alter this rhythm in the temporal world.
Eat, drink, and be merry, dear friends! Perpetual change makes consciousness an illusion, a game. Don’t be the problem. Be the solution. Be happy, and help to make others happy. That’s how I’ll tell myself to get through this holiday season.
I hope I listen.
[Editor's note: This piece originally ran in Christmas Past.]