Happy Holidays; Merry Christmas; Fortunate New Year.
I know Christmas proper has come and gone, but a seasonal greeting should still be in order. I’ve been musing about possible extensions, adaptations and variations. A case can be made for spreading it out — taking the whole 12 days instead of concentrating on just one — especially this year.
Christmas, and the high holiday season in general, has been in austerity mode this time around. For some people, it didn’t feel like Christmas at all. By taking the whole 12 days or even longer, we’d be able to stretch what’s left for us to enjoy to the fullest.
They’re called THE holidays because we take so much store by the string of celebrations that happen during what are the dark days of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere.
In places where Western European ways have been dominant, the heart of the holiday season is December 25. The big day is perceived as the apogee of a sequence of special observances, from Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en and the Winter Solstice, to New Years, Epiphany and Groundhog Day.
It seems clear, however, that this dominance is being eclipsed by a more balanced way for the various cultures of 21st-century humanity to relate to one another.
That’s an optimistic take on where we’re headed. A darker outlook is one that can’t imagine a world where some great empire or other doesn’t rule the waves, the lands and the skies. The conclusion becomes that the decline of Western dominance must lead to the rise of an Eastern world system, or maybe even a Southern one.
The fact is, though, that the holidays as we know them are being steadily enriched with elements from additional celebrations, ancient and modern: Samhain, Día de los Muertos, Diwali, Bodhi Day, Hanukkah, Kwaanza, Imbolc, Lunar (Chinese) New Year … all the way to the original New Year: Nowruz, as celebrated around the first day of Spring in places along the Silk Roads, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Beginning the year in March was the Roman, and therefore the original Western way: December is still named month ten, following month seven (Sept), eight (Octo) and nine (Novem). January and February are a kind of interlude: prologue to month one, and epilogue to the tenth.
It will be interesting to see where all this leads. Will these new variations get absorbed to the mainstream? Could they help restore some depth and meaning to these celebrations?
I’m using the word “restore” with some hesitation: The folly of trying to go “back” to any kind of imagined past has been made amply clear by the deluded longings of MAGA and Brexit advocates.
The conventional holiday season in North America is the commercial Christmas, which began emerging going on 200 years ago. Two institutions that originated in the 19th century and thrived throughout most of the high modern era played leading roles in shaping Christmas as we know it: city newspapers and big local department stores.
Despite the excesses, mainstream Christmas has been a wholesome development: It helped settler communities on both sides of the border move beyond a rather grim puritanical bent. The holiday brought people from diverse backgrounds together through a relatively benign set of shared customs. It also played a role in developing modern prosperity, which, although we’re struggling to come to terms with the fact that it is unsustainable, has brought previously unimaginable comfort, security and wealth to a fortunate large minority of us humans.
Television stations and shopping malls have helped keep mainstream forms alive for the last 70+ years, but they have not enriched Christmas culture in the same way newspapers and department stores did earlier. All I can think of are a few movies and TV specials that may stand the test of time, and the annual shopping frenzy on Black Friday and Boxing Day.
The reason for this stagnation may be that these peak modern forms left little room for local adaptation or engagement. And now, these 20th-century systems are being eclipsed by new configurations that are even more remote from life on the ground in any particular place.
The optimistic view is that, with commercial Christmas now almost totally within the domain of post-national, nowhere/anywhere corporate conglomerations, we’re left with a wide open field for adaptation and innovation. The powers that be may appear inevitable and invincible, but they’re actually spread extremely thin. Done the right way, efforts to improve balance and deepen meaning may meet with little resistance.
And there may never be a better time than the present, while we’re in the depths of the second wave of the pandemic, to try some things.
Taking the whole 12 days could be a good way to begin. We can make of them — six geese a-laying; seven swans a-swimming; eight maids a-milking, the works — what we hope and wish.
We could go even farther, and experiment with a kind of “Afterlude” that mirrors Advent: make it a full 40 days this time around rather than the traditional 12.
This would take us almost to Chinese New Year, and, in some years, the beginning of the Easter cycle, both of which are aligned with phases of the moon. The holiday season as we’ve known it has a solar bias; it might be good to add some lunar elements.
Matching the celestial with more of the terrestrial would also be timely: The angel chorus sang from on high, but their songs promise peace ON EARTH.
We could use this disruption in our routines to work on inventing or adapting ways to celebrate Christmas that could accelerate the development of a new kind of prosperity: ways to live, work, learn and associate that are more respectful of the planet and to all the creatures that live and grow on it than the kind of consumption mainstream Christmas has come to represent and promote in wealthy societies like ours.
Christmas as we know it also has a pronounced Northern bias. Maybe we can join forces to persuade Santa Claus and his crew to move their operation to the South Pole for the next six months or so. These austerity measures must have wreaked havoc on Christmas as they’ve known it up there too, so there might be interest.
If they agree, we can start getting ready for a celebration of the Winter holiday season in the Antipodes as the Northern Summer approaches.
Imagining a kind of anti-Christmas in July, with the “anti” signifying balance and completion, rather than conflict or opposition, could be a pleasant and rewarding way to spend the rest of the current holiday season, however long we wish it to be.
What would a one-time-only event, six months from now, dedicated to offsetting all that we’ve had to do without during this long, long time of cessation and isolation look like?