As the name suggests, religious holidays were once holy days, focused on honoring God. So oriented, local communities set aside their customary responsibilities to work and government; collectively, they assembled, prayed, and feasted. Both as individuals and as families, people took stock of who they had been—and who they should be.
All of us know that the modern world has transformed those celebrations. Holidays, even those with profound religious meanings, have broadened their scope to include many different activities and relationships, some explicitly commercial. Christmas, in particular, has become a time to go and do. People rush about buying presents, cleaning and decorating houses, making travel arrangements, and preparing elaborate meals. There are parties to host and attend, some with persons one rarely sees socially, indeed hasn’t seen since the holiday events of the preceding year. Everyone is to look their best and to adopt their most cheerful demeanor; achieving this may require trips to the salon and department store.
The online world both assists and documents these exploits. How we are celebrating Christmas—in words and images—is December’s primetime show in our ongoing broadcasts of personal and family advancement.
To be sure, there are people who see the Christmas season as an opportunity to reaffirm their faith and who stand apart from the hubbub. Many more increase their commitments to charity. However, most of us, I would venture, find ourselves caught up in the public expectation to be festive, or merry. Christmas, as expressed now, is a time to build and consolidate relationships with family, and with an ever-widening circle of friends and associates. Courtesies extended at this time of year—perhaps an invitation to one’s home or a nice gift or tip—are meant to “count,” that is, to reinforce social standing in the months ahead. If earlier celebrations honored God, now we honor one another.
It may be, as the song has it, that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” But that hectic festivity may also be the circumstance for unwanted stress, anxiety, and even depression. Not everyone has “the Christmas spirit,” and even those who do commonly find that the potential joy of the season somehow eludes their grasp.
In that light, consider four different roles people play in the creation and management of festivity. Each role, I argue, poses problems of its own sort and can be a source of stress.
Certain people have very clear ideas, perhaps based on fond memories of childhood, about Christmas celebrations. They have the will, resources, and organizational ability to realize these visions, even if that means doing most of the work themselves. As they see it, meals and decorations should happen in a certain way; certain people (and not others) should be present at important events; there should be rules about gifts and other social courtesies.
One might simply thank controllers for their contributions, as they free others from some of the heavy work of planning and executing these occasions. However, social life is more complicated than that. When one person has too much control, others are unable to implement their own visions or even to make what they consider useful contributions. To that extent, the festive event loses its qualities of camaraderie, spontaneity, surprise, and fun. Indeed, who wants to have their festivity managed?
Controllers may respond that they take this role because others are less interested in the (proper) sequence of events and less able to direct them. The cost of this attitude is that others may resent their bossiness. Alternative, differently styled activities may not occur. Commonly, controllers find themselves overwhelmed with all the preparations and executions. This pressure to perform increases as cultural platforms like magazines, websites, and social media ratchet up standards for the “perfect” Christmas. In past, controllers could compare their productions to those of a competitive friend, family member, or neighbor down the street. Now, they take on Martha Stewart, HGTV, and the Food Network.
Quite different is the circumstance of the isolate or non-participant. Many people live alone with few resources and social contacts. Christmas for them may feature the companionship of a beloved pet or a similarly situated friend who drops by. A few will go to a community center for a meal. At any rate, their holiday observance will not resemble the essentially upper-middle-class model supplied by media.
Others stand apart from the public celebrations by choice. Some are quiet, introverted people who simply do not enjoy prolonged or raucous gatherings. A subset of these oppose the public celebrations, with all their glitter and waste, on intellectual and moral terms. What society needs now, or so their thinking goes, is well-considered and compassionate policy, not aimless revelry.
Non-Christians, such as Jews and Muslims, also find themselves marginalized by the dominant pattern. As parents, they must explain to their children why “we” don’t celebrate in the way “they” do and why “our” traditions receive less attention than “theirs.”
Consider a final group, for whom Christmas is bittersweet. The noisy gatherings make them remember better times when they shared the companionship of now-departed loved ones. They attend the scheduled gatherings, perhaps smiling and laughing; but their hearts are elsewhere.
A third category I call the “trapped.” Such people do not want to be involved in many of the proceedings, but they feel should or even must. Attendance, or so it seems, is obligatory.
In that regard, most of us can recite instances of social occasions we haven’t wanted to attend. There is the official party at work. (“These people are more colleagues than friends. Don’t I see them enough?”) What about that neighborhood gathering? (“I know I should go but I really don’t want to know those people more than I do now.”). Some events obligate us because the hosts are friends and because we’ve gone there for several years now. (“Yes, but we’ve socialized with these folks at two parties already this month. Can’t we give it a rest?”). Be clear that most of these occasions are not just a matter of showing up and staying for a few minutes. Gifts for the host as well as food and beverages are part of the offing.
More important are gatherings with family. Frequently that means exposure to relatives of many different sorts. Long-simmering disagreements may boil over; attendees may revert to childhood roles. Think also of the pressure felt by adult children to travel to their parents’ homes for Christmas even when significant distances are involved. This pressure intensifies when there are grandchildren, especially a first grandchild. Imagine the difficulties of blended families, which may have four sets of grandparents to satisfy. Of course, people want—and have a right—to see their loved ones. But who envies a family traveling across the country with young children in winter?
Whatever our attitudes toward the holiday season, most of us sense limitations of time and energy. Rare is the person who has an extended December vacation. Purchasing, decorating, cooking, and wrapping presents must occur outside of regular working hours. Other domestic responsibilities continue apace.
There is also the matter of finances. Christmas preparations are expensive; so is travel. Debt piles up and, indeed, may linger well into the following year.
Commonly, people eat and drink excessively during the holidays. Alcoholic tendencies may find their outlet. Like financial issues, those overages have consequences for rest-of-year behavior. Returning to normalcy is difficult.
More than anything perhaps, there is the emotional investment of the season. Much of this is a wonderful thing, a mix of hope and love. Still, tension builds as the big day approaches. (“Will meals turn out? Can we get there in time? Will people like their presents? Is this outfit all right?”). Such anxieties are natural enough; but the effects can be cumulative, especially when they combine with sleep deprivation, financial worries, poor eating habits, and concerns about social flare-ups.
The four roles I’ve described generate distinctive tensions and require distinctive responses. However, all those “holiday blues” center on the challenges of interacting with different kinds of people. In its current form, Christmas represents a time when we should express our good wishes for all. Sharing meals and gifts—and being pleasant to one another—are elements of this; any disgruntlement should not overwhelm that kindly spirit. Instead of renouncing one’s connections to others at this time of year, perhaps the wiser course is to think hard about the kinds and levels of social involvement we can endure, to approach holiday activities selectively, and to find one’s own ways to demonstrate caring for others. Most people are clear enough about what—and who—really matters to them. Christmas is a chance to implement that vision.