Surviving and Thriving in the Holidays
by Paul Fedorowicz, M.A.
I grew up on the East Coast in a small town in the smallest state. Like other little boys of my generation, I believed in Santa Claus. I knew Santa Claus existed, because he lived next door to me, in the person of Norman Carol. Each December 24th, Mr. Carol, artificially bearded and dressed in the traditional red-and-white plush, went to the opposite end of my street and began a slow stagger toward my house. Along the way, he stopped at each house with little children and received his tribute. In my village, Santa cared little for milk and cookies, although it was customary to give the jolly old elf a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser. You see, Mr. Carol was an alcoholic, and by the time he reached my house he was very jolly indeed.
My little nose pressed against the chilly panes of glass, I would anxiously peer out into the winter night, looking for signs of Rudolph and the other reindeer. When the red-cheeked fat man finally arrived, usually quite late, I experienced a mixed blessing. Sitting on Santa's knee, I held my breath to avoid a contact high from his eighty-proof exhalations. The toys were emptied from the large white sack, the last whiskey was drunk, and then, to the horror of my innocent eyes, Santa would leave our home and pass out in the snow outside our door. Mrs. Claus, the good enabler, would then emerge from their house and drag her sodden husband home.
A sloshed Santa was symbolic of my family's dynamics. Every holiday, I silently prayed, "Let this be the Christmas (or New Year's, or Thanksgiving) when my family will be healthy." Something in my little child's soul made hope spring eternal, yet every holiday my puerile enthusiasm was gravely disappointed. There was alcoholism, violence, and chaos within my family, and the bright lights of the holidays only served to cast their darkest shadows.
When I moved to Seattle fourteen years ago, I was partially escaping the dysfunction in my family. I had vowed never again to subject myself to the physical, emotional, and spiritual dangers of holidays spent with unhealthy people. Nonetheless, when my first holiday in Seattle rolled around, I was faced with a conflict. The little child within me was still hopeful, still craved a loving community, but some other part of me had become cynical, jaded, and fearful. Would I become an old Scrooge in my early twenties, humbugging the holidays, or would I, somehow, find a more healthy way to honor the seasonal changes? This article reflects my struggle with those questions.
Putting the "holy day" back into "holiday"
The word origin of "holiday" is, of course, "holy day," yet for most contemporary people, a holiday is nothing more than a day off from work or an opportunity for marketing one's product or business. It used to be that a holiday was a time set aside for religious festival, a season in which to honor the mysteries of life. Our culture, however, has secularized holidays in its attempt to separate church and state. An office party during December becomes the "holiday party," with little or no mention of the various holy days that originally inspired it. I encourage people to reclaim their collective and personal heritage by shaping parties according to the dictates of soul, not the dictates of "correctness." Put the holy day back into the holiday by living the day soulfully. Maintain the essence of the celebration. Do as little work as possible and make the day as special as possible. Perhaps someone will feel left out of your particular celebration, but, hopefully, you will be included. In American culture, we take such care to offend no one that sometimes everyone is offended and the soul is left unattended.
a necessary first step toward reclaiming the significance of holidays is to identify the essence of that holiday. What are the ingredients necessary for the holiday? What are the specific words and images that come to mind? Ask yourself, "What are my own bottom-line needs?" The idiosyncratic associations will be the essence of the holiday for you.
The more universal elements are the archetypal essence of a holiday. These are the customs, symbols, and rituals that are basic human experiences. These aspects will be shared in common with your distant ancestors and people from around the world. Be mindful of that which connects you to the sacred and find your own unique balance between honoring personal and archetypal expressions of the holiday.
Celebrating a season
Every year, businesses market holidays sooner and sooner. One holiday season leaks into the preceding one. When this occurs, one isn't allowed to experience any one holiday fully, proper closure with one holiday before the next begins, or necessary downtime between holidays. Just as fields must remain fallow for a time lest they become stressed and depleted, humans need periods of "no celebration" so that times of celebration are truly meaningful.
A powerful paradox is at play here. On the one hand, our market-driven society seems to extend holidays every year, but in reality, holidays have shrunk drastically in the last century. Our ancestors typically did not celebrate one holy day. They honored seasons, periods of days or weeks during which one maintained a sacred attitude. We don't sing of the "twelve days of Christmas" for nothing.
I like to plan something really wonderful after the official holiday so that I have something to look forward to once all the hoopla is over.
It's no wonder that people often experience post-holiday depressions. Our culture has at least one month of marketing leading up to a holiday but then only one day (and maybe an "Eve") to actually be in the holiday. This puts a tremendous burden upon people to get it right: after all that buildup we have to experience satisfaction within a matter of a few hours. Of course we're likely to be disappointed!
I advocate a return to the celebration of holiday seasons. When we have different events to experience over a period of time, we take the pressure off any one event or day. Seasons help us to spread out the highs and lows. Personally, I like to plan something really wonderful after the official holiday so that I have something to look forward to once all the hoopla is over. This allows me to decompress and enter back into ordinary time more slowly. The market-driven culture is great at building us up, but it pays no attention to bringing us back down. It is important to have rituals that prepare us to cross not only the threshold into the holiday but the threshold out of the holiday.
Travel once served this function: "Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go." It used to take a while to get places. We had time to reflect and digest as we traveled to and fro. Travel helped create a sense of process. However, modern jet flight and superhighways get us there and back in the wink of an eye. I advocate slower means of transportation to extend your holiday season. Take the train. Travel the back roads. Give yourself more time to get to the holiday and back again.
Contact with the ancestors
In our postmodern society, people are increasingly estranged from their backgrounds and cultural roots. In traditional societies, holiday seasons were times to honor the ancestors through various offerings: making a place for Elijah at the supper table; leaving milk and cookies for Santa. Most Native American ceremonies acknowledge the ancestors with a phrase like, "All my relations, I honor you." Halloween was originally Allhallows Eve, the night before The Day of the Dead, when Europeans and Latin Americans cared for their deceased.
Even though one may be separated from one's family and have little awareness of ancestry, I encourage people to find ways to contact "The Ancestors" at holiday times. Some practical suggestions: Place old photos on an altar or in a seat of honor. Talk to elders by visiting nursing homes or simply saying hello to an older person on the street. Adopt a living elder into your life, or adopt a deceased ancestor ("yours" or not) by visiting a local cemetery. Prepare traditional foods from your cultural background and offer a small portion to the ancestors. Make other appropriate sacrifices in honor of those who came before you.
Attention to "The Ancestors" helps provide context for our lives in a world that can often feel disconnected and without context.
Spending time with others
Songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter sings, "We have two lives - the ones we're given and the ones we make." For many of us, the families we were born into do not fully meet the needs of our souls. It becomes our responsibility to shape our lives so that the soul is more properly attended. This may require creating a "family" that works for us. Gather around yourself friends that feel like family or get yourself "adopted" into a family that you admire. If you know that you tend to experience loneliness around holidays, then get yourself invited, well in advance, to spend time with others. Better yet, throw your own party and invite others who may also feel misfit. Loneliness and envy needn't pain us. We can learn to listen to these feelings as messages from the soul that let us know what it most desires.
Gather around yourself friends that feel like family or get yourself "adopted" into a family that you admire.
You may need to give yourself full permission to not celebrate a holiday. This is equally important. The soul is also cared for when we give ourselves permission to retreat from the societal and commercial frenzy. However, if you do choose to spend time with relatives, here are a few tips that may make the experience more satisfying:
(a) Spend as much one-to-one time with family members as possible. Groups get crazy, as a rule.
(b) Give yourself permission to leave any situation that doesn't feel sufficiently nurturing. Airline reservations can be cancelled and rescheduled.
(c) Give yourself permission to say "no." Set limits that keep you safe and sane.
(d) Give yourself permission to say "yes." People and situations do change sometimes!
(e) Resign and accept situations and people. Things may never be as you'd like them to be in your family. Experiment with enjoying them for who they really are. Allow yourself to be appreciated for who you really are.
(f) Talk to and support your inner child throughout your visit. Give your child-self the kind of holiday it wants or needs.
The last time I was in Rhode Island, I learned that Norman Carol had died. Alcoholic or not, he was my Santa Claus and I visited his grave to pay my last respects. I left a small offering of food and a few salty tears. Mr. Carol had become one of my "ancestors," although Santa Claus lives on in my child's heart. This autumn I will visit the small village of my childhood. I will choose to see some relatives and not others. I will protect the child and care for the needs of my soul.
Paul Fedorowicz, M.A. is a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist and a certified yoga therapist in Seattle with special interests in dreams, creative process, spiritual growth, and rites of passage. He has over 12 years' experience working with depression, anxiety, grief and loss, trauma recovery, and family-of-origin issues. Paul works with individuals, couples, and groups at his private practice office in Fremont. (206) 633-1323.