I struggled a bit with figuring out what single adjective best encapsulates this year’s holiday season. I settled on sterile.
- Until yesterday, this winter has been unseasonably warm. Like temperatures in the 40s/50s, with total seasonal snow accumulation of less than an eighth of an inch. Dry Christmases are as lame as dry wedding receptions.
- I didn’t put up decorations or send cards, and I haven’t really listened to much Christmas music. Shopping for gifts has brought no joy.
- Things are a bit morose at work — no one seems to be in a holiday mood given transitions within the hospital. No potlucks, no decorations, no white-elephant gifts.
- Family gatherings seem contrived, even superficial. Pleasant, to be sure, but … transactional.
- I have been extremely inactive in church events this season.
So this year, Christmas is just another day on the calendar. Just like Thanksgiving was. Just like New Years’ Day will be.
It didn’t used to be like this. Once upon a time, the holiday season was magic. In fact, the entire fourth quarter marked my favorite time of the year. Kickoff coincided with my birthday in mid-September, continued with helping my grandparents reap their harvest and burn their leaves in October, and hit an autumnal high point with Halloween and its associated trick-or-treating (as a kid) or costume parties (as an adult). Then — as the cold set in — we prepared for Thanksgiving. Until my early 20s, we assembled for a lavish feast at my grandparents’ house; this long-awaited afternoon of food and football opened the door to the Christmas season.
With the arrival of Advent, the spiritual side received nourishment with the various preparations for the Christmas season. When Christmas itself came, the feast arrived with cold, snow, gifts, parties, choirs and Masses; the entire family convened at my grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve, then we went to Midnight Mass, then my parents and brother and I did our own thing on Christmas morning. The period between Christmas and New Years’ Eve allowed for a bit of quiet recovery before an evening of revelry on the 31st.
Then, after a drying-out brunch on the morning of Jan. 1, it was all over but the fond memories.
So what went wrong? Probably a few things. First among them, I no longer welcome birthdays. Followed by substantial changes over the last few years to my circle of friends that has put Halloween parties off the table. Then the lack of a seasonal harvest. Oh, and don’t forget the fracturing of Thanksgiving into small, casual affairs. And something similar with Christmas. And over the last few years, I’ve been less attentive to my religious duties than I should be.
All of this is potentially correctible, of course. But do I give a damn? Not so much. The magic of the holiday season, this year and last, wasn’t the holidays — it was the extended vacation I scheduled to take care of things around the house and otherwise unwind and plan for the coming year.
Theologians talk of acedia — a sense of spiritual and emotional deadness marked by burnout bordering on apathy. I think the term fits. Since Medieval Christendom, acedia has been viewed as a sin, mostly because those poor souls afflicted by it suffer the double whammy of torpor and a profound lack of motivation to do anything about it.
The simple joys of the past, of family and security and that happiness that comes from being secure in one’s person and station, have taken flight. In their place are a sense of self-reliance and mission related to big goals that take big effort to execute. Yet the risk of walking your own path instead of conforming to the path set by family, friends and co-workers is that your only corrective comes from within. With acedia, there’s no corrective from within. Cue the vicious infinite regress.
Part of it, too, might be the lack of seasonality in the annual calendar. When I was a kid, we had the subtext of micro-farming to break up the year. Whether it derived from the different ways we took care of the horses in summer versus winter, or the cycle of planting, nurturing and harvesting from a large garden and from fruit trees, we had no choice but to respect that different times of the year had a different focus and therefore different associated joys and laments. Without that connection to the earth, and with the Catholic liturgical year subdued the further from the Church you fall, the calendar really is just one damn thing after another with no need to plan ahead or to enjoy the immediacy of now.
Maybe next year will be better. More meaningful. More seasonal. Less sterile.