(I really like this one, too: )
No, really: Merry Christmas. And Happy Hanukkah. And Heri za Kwanzaa. And a joyous Milad un Nabi. And a blessed Solstice. Happy Holidays to everyone, for whatever reason you have to celebrate. (A special happy birthday to people born around the holiday season, since you normally get left in the cold. You rule the Yule.)
I’m saying this because I had trouble finding a reason to celebrate this year. No, that’s not true: I have a dozen reasons to celebrate; but none of them are related to Christmas. (My reasons: my wife, my dog, my bird, my tortoise; my family and friends; my house, my books, my favorite things; my health and the continued existence of this reality and this planet and this country; art and words and truth and beauty. Oh – and coffee. Always coffee.) So I had trouble getting into the holiday spirit this year. I didn’t want to sing along with the Christmas carols; I didn’t help decorate the tree; I didn’t wrap presents until Christmas Eve. I wore my holiday stuff and I put up lights on the outside of the house, but it didn’t really excite me. I wasn’t feeling it.
A little bit of that is that Christmas is not a particularly beloved holiday for my wife Toni, and so walking around belting out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” is not the joyeaux occasion around here that it might be in other homes. But even if she was Santa’s favorite elf (Back off, Kringle – she’s mine), I wouldn’t have felt much like doing that.
Because it’s 2016. And John Glenn just died. And Trump will be president in less than a month. And civilians are being killed in Aleppo.
And for me personally, it’s been hard because I had school up until the 22nd, and was still fiercely grading and doing schoolwork on the 23rd, when grades were due. It’s hard to feel Christmas-y when you’re reading bad essays. It’s not much easier when you’re reading good essays, when you have to grade those essays.
Here’s my Christmas wish: I wish that I was permitted to write, on the papers of students who clearly didn’t read Fahrenheit 451 with the class but still write on the test that Bradbury’s dystopia won’t come to pass because people in our society still read, “You stink of lies.” Or maybe, “It’ll be your fault when it happens.”
See? Feelings like that have no place in Christmas.
But you know what I realized? They kinda do.
I’m not a religious man. I don’t actually care about the birth of Christ. Oh, I have no problem with it: Jesus was a good dude, as I understand it; he’s in a couple of my favorite books (Lamb and Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series – though his big one is not one of my favorites. Never read that. I hate it when they number paragraphs. Feels like a reading comprehension test.), and I like what I know about what he had to say. But it doesn’t put rum in my eggnog, if you follow me. Nor does the birth of the Prophet Mohammed matter to me, nor the miracle of the lamp, nor the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Though that last one is pretty cool. And I do like the idea behind Kwanzaa, namely community and cultural celebrations. But it’s pretty generic for me, not being African-American: my culture has never been threatened, other than by our own cynicism and sarcasm. And our exceptionalism and arrogance. And by – but we’re not talking about America here, we’re talking about the holidays. The holidays – including New Year’s, by the by, which annoys me much more than it pleases me – are not terribly meaningful occasions for me.
So the only thing the holidays really mean to me is: there is stuff in there that I like. More than anything, I like my vacation. So very, very much. I actually finished a book yesterday, for the first time in more than a month. Me. I haven’t been reading books. What does that say about my job? My time management? My choices in life?
No: we’re not talking about that crap, either. We’re talking about things I like about the holidays. I like singing along with the songs. I like knowing all the words. I like decorating my house, especially with lights. My neighborhood is very dark – no streetlights – and the Christmas lights really shine. I actually really like having a tree inside. I love giving presents, and I like sending greeting cards, though I’d rather be more selective and intentional with it (And I’m annoyed that all of my relatives sent my Christmas cards to the wrong address.), because sending a card with a canned comment about the holidays doesn’t make me happy; I’d rather send cards that I know people will like, with thoughts inside about that person, just because that person will like the card and I might have been thinking about them; whether it’s actually a holiday card or not is pretty irrelevant. I would like it more if it wasn’t, actually; if the person and the card were the only occasion necessary for the sending. I like wearing goofy holiday-themed clothes, though I kind of always wear goofy themed clothes, because I don’t really own any t-shirts that aren’t printed with either a pop culture reference, a bad pun, or something about books and reading and imagination.
Do you see what I see?
Here it is.
It doesn’t matter that it’s Christmas. I mean, Merry Christmas, especially if that is a day of great meaning and symbolism for you; but you know what? Happy December 26th, too. And March 9th: my very best wishes for that day. Oh – and the eleventh of June. That’s a good date. The 21st, too; of every month. It doesn’t matter that today is Christmas because it doesn’t matter what day it is. What matters is that this is a time of year when we stop our usual grind and do things that make us happy. People who love seeing their families make time to do it around now. We give presents, and cards, and wish people well. We actually use the mail, and get excited about things arriving in the box. We decorate, especially with bright colors and lights. We take vacations: we take time off from work and do things that we like to do, like bake, and sing, and watch favorite movies.
My God, we need those things more in our lives. Especially because it’s still 2016, and Carrie Fisher had a heart attack, and there’s a typhoon hitting the Philippines. And Trump’s going to be president in less than a month.
There’s an important thing that I have to say. Are you listening? Okay, here it is: I wish people happiness because happiness is good. But sadness is good, too. (I know this because I paid attention when I read Fahrenheit 451. You bunch of tools. My students are the tools, not people who are reading this. If you’re reading this, then you rock. You really are the reason we will hopefully avoid Bradbury’s dystopia, where the books are banned and the people don’t care.) Sadness is important. And not just because you need to feel sadness in order to understand happiness; I suppose that’s true, but I can’t say that I have any experience with being happy without being sad, so who knows? No: sadness is important because sadness is a genuine human emotion. When you are feeling sad, then that’s you, and that’s you feeling. Those are important. You have to be yourself. You have to feel. You have to experience all of your feelings, even the dark ones.
Christmas is a time of sadness. First just because it’s winter, and it’s cold, and it’s dark. Sometimes because we can’t do the things we want to do, because of job or money or circumstance. Sometimes because it reminds us of people who are gone. That last is a genuine feeling, and an important one. Don’t belittle grief just because everyone around you is wearing a light-up tie. It may be difficult to live with sorrow in the face of so much ostentatious cheer, but it’s better to do it than try to ignore what you feel or block it out. And your sorrow is not wrong, nor is it less important than someone else’s joy.
Here’s another reason why Christmas makes people sad: because of Christmas traditions. Because traditions become obligations, and then when we don’t keep them, we feel like we have failed. That’s why people risk their lives to drive through blizzards to be in a specific place on a specific day; because that’s their tradition. People put themselves deep into debt, and then spend the rest of the year fretting about it; because that’s their tradition. People whose traditions include things that are gone, and people that are gone, get to both grieve and feel like failures.
Bullshit. Traditions should only be maintained if it pleases you to do so. If it doesn’t, make up new traditions. Or screw tradition: do whatever the hell you want. That’s what the holiday spirit should be about: do whatever the hell you want, just because it makes you genuinely happy. Start with being nice to people. Every year, we all see the news stories about someone getting robbed, or mugged, or assaulted, and we all say, “You shouldn’t do that to someone during Christmas.” And then we all think, and maybe say, “Well, really, you shouldn’t do that to someone any time.” That’s right. The holiday season should be a time when we think about, and act with, kindness and generosity, more than any particular religious observance; and every day should be the same.
Because it doesn’t matter that it’s Christmas. A day for giving and for cherishing those that you love can be – should be – any day. Every day. And if today is a day when you feel sad, do that. Feel it. Go through it. And then make some cookies, and read a book, or call someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Feel better for having felt bad.
Have a happy today, everyone. I wish you all the very best.
And the same again, tomorrow.