As I write, the annual apocalypse of holiday commercialism, and consequent cheer, is – at least in the United States – in its fullest, most triumphant throes. Not that I can tell; here, thankfully, there is no evidence of the event. Storefronts remain blissfully free of Santas and discounted merchandise, while commercial activity remains at normal levels. So far, Christmas music has been limited to one performance of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” sung by my students and orchestrated by yours truly, for visiting scholarship donors. If you’re a holiday scrooge, I live in wonderland.
But I’m not a complete holiday scrooge; actually, there are many parts of the holiday season I love – most of which happen to be brilliant cliches that, surprisingly, also seem to exist in real life, and as such make real life much the better for it. I love the glittering, crisp atmosphere of the season, glittering drifts of freshfallen powdery snow wafting through the air on a gently biting breeze, light refracting and reflecting and crystallizing and kaleidoscoping into billions of shimmering colors, a moonscape of light. I love the feeling of, after a long day skiing (or otherwise enjoying the outdoors; the skis are my preferred method) beginning to sense the rapid approach of the winter evening; the minute deepenings of infinitesimal gradations of color in the landscape, the darkening of shadows, the sky bloodying with deep pastel hues. I love the feeling of earlyevening coming out of this darkening quietness into a warm homelike room where deliciously spiced hot beverages are steamingbubbling on the stove; in the grate, keeping with the classic winter image, a fire burning red and orange, the sky outside, with the melting away of the day, itself melting all its color and life into our coziness. I love, most of all, when, in the transition from the frigid external Arctic to the warmly oozing comfort of the home, the sight of family and friends gathered around that aforementioned flaming hearth, singing, laughing, drinking, playing games, giving – in short, Holidaying.
These celebrations of place and people and moment are, for me, the unbreakable and undeniable center of the winter holiday season, its sacred core. Buying, selling, canned Christmas music sung by Helium-inhaling “elves”, and giving monstrous amounts of gifts – these, it seems to me, are incongruous, taking us away from the places and people and moments that we should be enjoying and forcing us to look elsewhere, outside of our experiences and emotions and realities and imaginations, to find things that we hadn’t even known we wanted – things which, for many, become in themselves more important than our own experiences. It is not enough for these monstrously overgrown holiday Gargantuas to attempt to superimpose a uniform experience of the holiday season and a widespread commercial bonanza; they also attempt to rip those individualized celebrations of place and people and moment out of the season and replace them with the standardized, suburban mall copy. Even worse, this corporate takeover of the season has gutted important values beyond recognition; the fetishism and commercialization of concepts of “giving” have eroded the idea of what it truly means to give and receive.
Why has the urge to give material things to each other so overwhelmed this season? Why can’t we recognize that simply celebrating the moments and places and people that we are privileged to know and to spend the holiday with – that this alone is enough? Why do we need to externalize our care for each other in giftwrapped boxes containing expensive, yet impersonalized, mass-produced for mass-consumption things? This frustrates me every year as I see my country hemorrhaging several continentworths of money on useless crap.
We are so careful as we buy gifts, yet so careless concerning the concept of giving itself. To whom should we give what? What is necessary, what is enough, what is extraneous, and what is pure waste? I don’t presume to be able to answer these questions, but as the holiday apocalypse continues unabated, it’s always worth spending a few moments thinking about what this season truly is – and what it should and could be.
So I may be a little bit of a scrooge, or at least a commercial Puritan. For while I miss my friends and family back home more than ever during this season, I’m also glad to have the mental space to reflect – no Christmas music or sales or advertisements, remember? – and recognize what things in this season are, to me, truly important.