My sister sent me a holiday gift box the other day, consisting of foil-wrapped chocolate coins, a chocolate dreidel, a real dreidel, and ceramic candy dish in the shape of a dreidel. “SHALOM!” the coins proclaimed. No, I’m not Jewish, and neither is she, but the gift delighted me, as she’d figured it would, proving once more that no matter how different you are from your sibling, there’s still something you’ll share that nobody else in the world will get.
When we were kids, our family pretty much phoned in the year-end holidays. Oh, we got a tree and some gifts and ate some sort of vaguely festive meal on December 25 and again a week later, but there wasn’t any more to it than that. Despite our parents’ both growing up in devoutly Christian families, my sister and I grew up godless heathens, so the religious aspects of the season went unobserved. What’s more, when you live in Hawaii, “winter solstice” is almost meaningless—you’re probably still going to the beach that day—and you figure out pretty quickly that a fat guy who brings presents by sliding down something called a “chimney” (which no one around you has) and gets to these “chimneys” in something known as a “sleigh” (which seems to be used to get around in the snow, which you’ve never seen) driven by “reindeer” (which live in snowy areas, which yeah you get the idea) is a lot of nonsense at which you smile and nod politely because adults seem to expect it. In other words, December does not really hold any personal significance for me other than being the month of my birth, and even that has tended to be an occasion for glumness rather than joy.
All that said, despite my cynicism, my utter disdain for all things sentimental, and my general dark-heartedness, I kind of like this time of year. It isn’t because of what the holidays mean, it’s simply because there are holidays at all. Things are different this time of year. Work slows down. There are more days off, more excuses to slack off and party on. The weather is changing, too, and while that isn’t always a welcome thing, nothing transforms a landscape like snow. And of course there’s food. Along with the chocolate dreidel, we are anticipating a large box of petit fours from a long-time client of the BF. The petit fours say “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” and I like to rearrange the letters in creative, slightly obscene ways.
At the same time, there are a lot of holiday “traditions” I just won’t do. I actually shop less around Christmas time than I do any other time of the year, which is to say not at all. I have nightmares about being stuck in the mall with crushing crowds and endless carols (why? why do they do it? why does every pop singer think they can do something different with the same awful songs? oh right, the money), but I figure there are plenty enough other people around to buoy the economy with their conspicuous consumption. It’s a coin toss as to whether the BF and I will actually stay up until midnight to ring in the new year; sometimes we’re up for it, but other times the old lady needs her sleep, dammit, so pipe down and pop that champagne cork elsewhere. And as for the old lady celebrating being a year older, well, usually the most celebratory thing I do on the second-to-last day of the year is go for a run in the woods to try to make whatever yearly mileage goal I’d set this time last year. Sometimes I make my goal. Sometimes the weather is so lousy I just say fuck this shit and go home. It’s my birthday and I’ll cuss if I want to.
For someone who has been relatively rootless all her life, the holidays pretty much mean whatever I decide to make them mean. With that in mind, why shouldn’t I celebrate Hanukkah? Or Mardi Gras, though I’m not Catholic, or Bastille Day, though I’m not French, or Groundhog Day, though I’m not a woodchuck nor do I hibernate, as enticing as that concept may be. To me, holidays aren’t about tradition but about change. A holiday is the chance to shake things up a bit, dress differently, eat different foods, see the familiar transformed into something more colorful, more whimsical and fun. I am well aware that some holidays are meant to be serious and solemn, that some have important historical significance to certain groups, that my appropriating them for my own sense of whimsy could be considered deeply insulting. I’m also well aware that many holidays are already completely misguided, based on partial information, the celebratory day chosen not because of historical accuracy but because people in power found it more convenient or strategically useful to hold them at that particular point in the year. Put all this together and the way I see it, the randomness is part of the reason we celebrate. We need a reason to stop and see things in a different way, and any reason will do, even a foolish or false one. As long as we can recognize the absurdity and the artifice, we can still enjoy the way holidays show us the possibility of transformation. So much of what happens in life is beyond our control, it’s nice that at least for a little while, we can change things, or hold on to them, or both, as necessary.