“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” So goes a seasonal song by Johnny Mathis. A true statement – but not for everyone. For some the holidays can be difficult, a fact the rest of us should never forget. A newer part of the holiday season, “Blue” events are designed for those who, due to personal loss, addiction, illness, homelessness, etc., find this a difficult time.
But what is the holiday season? Some elements remain the same while others evolve – not always in good ways. People have long complained about over-commercialization, which seems worse this year. The start of this holiday season barely avoided Halloween – Black Friday is now a week or more – and TV advertisements appear regularly for the multiple gifts of cars. Holiday shopping may no longer be about purchasing presents. Rather it helps the retail economy by tempting people to buy things they may not need and, when the credit card bills arrive in January, cannot afford. Traditionalists may be right: the simplest gift, carefully selected or personally made, is still the best present.
The holiday season is the most charitable time of the year. Some organizations obtain their annual financial resources during these two months. However, this aspect can make those with limited finances acutely aware of what they cannot afford to give, while others with genuine needs can be overlooked during the rest of the year. As generous as people are during the holiday season, aiding the needy should not be limited to year’s end.
Every holiday season includes myriad activities with various roots undertaken for different reasons. There are common elements: home decorations, social events, greeting cards and letters, special concerts, ballets, plays, movies and TV shows, festive dinners, repetitive music on the radio. Most individual holiday observances are a mixture of cultural norms, family traditions, social expectations and personal taste. There are no right or wrong ways to celebrate the holidays and judging a neighbor’s observance by one’s own is never appropriate.
Other factors influence what constitutes holiday observances. Black Friday has changed how Thanksgiving Day is celebrated, many community events like concerts, tree-lightings, holiday displays and strolls are held in part to promote sales, and this year a Dec. 23 Patriots game will influence how some prepare for Christmas Eve and day.
As the start of the holiday season becomes earlier, the difficulty of observing the traditional Christmas season until Jan. 6 grows. The Christmas tree commercially cut in October and decorated before Thanksgiving Day may become a fire hazard by Christmas Day and will be taken down soon after. Except for Orthodox Christians, the arrival of the Magi on the Epiphany has been somewhat lost.
When the religious aspects of the modern American holiday season are considered, our diversity as a society becomes apparent. The western Christian tradition of a four-Sunday Advent season preparing for a 12- (actually 13) day Christmas season is rarely observed, even by many churches. Rather, Christmas is often over on Dec. 26 and New Year’s Eve and Day ends the holiday season.
Between Veterans Day and Jan. 6 most religions have unrelated observances, including the Western and Eastern Christian, Jewish, Sunni and Sufi Islam, Baha’i, Sikh and Buddhist faith traditions. Zoroastrians, Wiccans and Pagans celebrate Yule or the winter solstice and many African Americans observe the quasi-religious Kwanza. While each believes theirs is the defining event of the season – and for them it is – the debate over what to call this time of year is similar to the story of the aged Rabbi asked to decide who owned a goat.
The first man argued that the goat was his because he had raised it. To which the Rabbi replied, “You are right, my son.” The second held that the animal was his for he saved it from a wolf. To which the Rabbi replied, “You are right, my son.” At which point another man stood up and said, “But Rabbi, you have said both are owners of the goat.” To which the Rabbi replied, “You are right, my son.”
One value of the holiday season is its contrast to what comes after. Cape Cod is a dark and cold place during the winter, with fewer people and less opportunity to come together. The holidays make our world a brighter, warmer, and despite the cold, happier place, even if for a short time. Beyond that, the meaning of this time of year may depend on how it is observed. The deeper, less material, more profound, even spiritual our holiday activities, the more we are made aware of the “Reason for the Season.”