by Janina Chamberlain
My children are, at this very moment, writing and rewriting New Year’s Resolutions that they hope will shape their upcoming 2013. In their lifetimes, neither I nor their father have ever made resolutions. I’m sure I have mentioned, in passing, that “some people” do this, and somehow, it has stuck. They have been working on this for months.
Watching them do this, I am convinced that as a species, we are drawn to marking the days, creating rituals to help us differentiate one day, one season, one year from another. We are drawn to seek something “special” from time to time.
I grew up in a family that celebrated all holidays with gusto and creativity, with education and with presents. I learned how to say Merry Christmas in too many languages to count, and became familiar with (and even created) holiday dishes from other lands. Music was played and sung, legends were read and carols researched (did you know there really was a “King” Wenceslas?). The religious part of things was deemphasized and presented as simply a traditional basis for it all, not as any belief system to ascribe to. Phew. Dodged a bullet there, never being told I had to actually believe any of that stuff. As Tim Minchin says, “Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords, but the lyrics are dodgy”. We took what we wanted, and left the rest.
But even in my heathen home, there was celebration, there was tradition. Why? Why did I exchange cards and gifts on St. Patrick’s Day, not being a smidge Irish? Why were there presents on Valentine’s Day? And red envelopes on Chinese New Year, even though our Chinese ancestry is at least 4 generations back?As I aged, I was told that no one group owns one holiday–it’s fluid, it’s for rejoicing, it’s celebration for celebration’s sake!!! I theorized that growing up during bleak times was the catalyst for my family’s overindulgence in all holidays. A sort of “life will never be that lacking in cheer again” determination.
I, however, did not grow up in bleak times. I don’t need to cheer myself up. I can find joy in the smallest places, the most mundane tasks. Every day is pretty good. I don’t think I need to have things to look forward to. Or do I? This past Christmas, as part of a non-believing homeschooling family who rarely knows what day or date it is, I struggled with thinking I should do something on that all-(used to be)important C day. (I struggled because to me, “should” is a swear word. I don’t not want to be told that I should do anything) We have no family close by, the kids no longer believe in Santa, but I felt I had some responsibility to do something. Even though the kids are quite smart, critical thinkers, they still live in a preteen society where they don’t mind being different but don’t want to be toooo different. I thought that we needed to do something to make Christmas special.
The discussion with my husband began: “It’s a Christian holiday and we’re not Christians so there’s no need to celebrate it,” he says. I argued that it’s not necessarily a religious thing, it’s a cultural thing: North Americans, in general, regardless of true belief, celebrate many holidays identified as Christian,, in some way or form. This continues for a while, without much resolution. Even coming out the other side of the discussion with my husband, I still don’t have an adequate answer as to why we “should” do something. I know why we are drawn to it, though. As evidenced by my children’s activity, it is human nature to keep track of time, to notice things in the world around us, and attach parts of ourselves to those happenings, even if it’s something as simple as loving the day the first leaves start to fall in autumn, because that means your birthday is right around the corner. The Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler says all humans are primarily in search of a sense of belonging. And so, legions of people can say: This is what we do, (on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) this is what makes us special. Special as a family, or as a group distinct from other groups. The Jehovah Witnesses can say: We don’t do anything, and that’s what makes us special. Whatever we do or don’t do, it helps remind us who we are and helps us make connections to the broader world.
So we did “some”thing. Doing something as a family on these holidays, whatever it is, has a stabilizing effect. Even if what you do changes every few years. It fulfills that desire for belonging that is so acutely felt in children. But it benefits us all, for young people love to have something special to look forward to, and old(er) people enjoy looking back on things. Remember that Easter when the cat bit you? Remember when we had to go to the hospital on Christmas Eve? Let me tell you again. The holidays are to pay homage to the fact that we’re all stuck with each other, another year has passed and we’re still here, and we’ll do something to make it special.