In the frenzy of Thanksgiving and Black Friday*, we get sucked into a mindset of consumerism – a mindset of … stuff. But unfortunately, as Tom Hanks put it in “Polar Express”, “Sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can't see.” I think we frequently lose sight of those “most real things”, especially during the busy holiday season, what with all the shopping, the gift-giving, and the many celebrations. From the Thanksgiving weekend past Christmas right up to New Year's Day, there's a fair lot to be happy about, and we tend to celebrate that by buying a lot of stuff, to each other, to strangers, and to ourselves. Not that that's a bad thing; its a holiday, after all. But the one-track thinkers we all are, it's easy for us to forget why we celebrate in the first place.
No, I'm not talking about the religious stories behind the holidays, thought those are completely valid if you so believe. I'm not going to go too much into the many things for which we should be grateful, though that's certainly important this time of the year. I'm more curious to think about how we deal with material things and ideas in different ways. It's inherent to the fact that we're human, that we relate to and understand concrete things better than abstract ideas. Even if, in our heads, we know with logic that some idea or virtue is more important than a concrete thing, it's hard to act on that thought and really take it to the heart, because quite frankly, we get distracted by shiny new things.
Even so, at the root of everything is our values. We give gifts during the holiday season in the spirit of appreciating others around us, and the things we do from the carols to the celebratory parties to the snowman-building and house-decorating exist, in theory, for those values, though not necessarily in execution. As I wrote just a week ago, “It's so easy for things to grow into something disproportionately bigger than what it was meant to be.” In this case, the ideas that we originally attach to material things like Christmas, Thanksgiving, caroling, and other traditions tend to become separated from the things themselves as time passes by. The traditions evolve, and the things we do take on newer meanings every time, so that what Christmas meant a hundred years ago is starkly different from what it means within our fast-paced, connected society today. This evolution of tradition isn't inherently harmful, and it's a natural process. But at the same time, I think it's incredibly important that we remind ourselves what traditions mean to each of us individually – religious or otherwise – every time we become a part of it.
For me, the end-year brings a lot of different things to my mind. First, it's a time of giving: to family, to friends, and possibly to strangers who may be looking for a little pick-me-up. More so than literal “gifts”, giving gifts of a few kind words to that guy you pass on the street, or a few dollars here and there to donation boxes you see this time of the year, or going caroling, if that's more your thing. Ultimately, giving anything to anyone is a deeper way of acknowledging his or her significance to you, and saying “I appreciate who you are and what you do”. And I think if there's any time suited for such things, it's the one that's coming up right now. Second, as the end of something, the end-year also is a time of reflection for many, and I'm no exception. Looking back at the last 365 days and planning for the next 365, all the minuscule changes to you life that are difficult to see in day-to-day are magnified in the scale of a year, so it's a good time to set goals for the coming year as well.
But most of all, the holiday season is also just a time for enjoying what is. As much as thinking about the deep meanings of traditions are important, the value of these holidays also just comes from the fact that it's a fun time of the year for a lot of us. For eleven months of the year, we're stuck in the monotony of just doing things – too busy to step outside of the daily cycle of 9 to 5** – and the long stretch of holidays affords us a healthy dose of time to do so. Many times, we just exist through the working hours and live on the metaphorical surface of what's happening in our lives, but I think everything can have more value – be worth more to everyone – if we take a bit of time to sink deeper into the reality. And what better time to do just that than a two-week period of no work and tons of couch time, right?
So even as Macy's greets its biggest sales day of the year and Apple celebrates its largest Black Friday and Cyber Monday revenue to date, also keep in mind what the season means to you, personally, because there's always a good balance of material things and the values behind them. Don't forget to share whatever you have with the people around you, and to take time to think about whatever you find important. As much as we like to celebrate this time of the year with buying, giving, and exchanging gifts, don't forget to step outside the frenzy and ask yourself how you think of the traditions that you take part in – find your own Santa Claus.
* Incidentally, this blog post, made possible by my Black Friday purchase.
** Or 7 to 9, if you're a high schooler this time of the year
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, The formality paradox.
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