What do the holidays mean in the 21st century? The winter holidays fundamentally promote and celebrate faith in humanity, family, and seasonal joy. Ironically, this time of the year can be, above all, isolating and lonely for many. Are the holidays ultimately as joyful as our cultural beliefs suggest?
Perhaps holiday loneliness is so profound because memories of past happiness and hopes for future happiness are half of what the holidays are about. For some, deep isolation stems from not celebrating the holidays while everyone else is caught up in celebration. Others may not have anyone to spend the holidays with, such as older generations who are left behind while their families go on vacation. And, in some cases, the holidays are simply a stressful time when expectations are high and pressure to “enjoy the season” is simply intolerable.
When it comes down to it, the holidays can create a lot of expectations. It may be the first time you have seen your family since September, or perhaps you want to try to fit in as much fun as possible in this fleeting moment of time off. High expectations can often build up stress, despite the winter break’s purpose as stress relief from school. The pressure to be merry can have perverse effects, and that’s a natural thing—there is no need to feel guilty.
Particularly because we have challenges in our lives, the holidays are important for non-spiritual reasons; students need time to better understand the full purpose and meaning of their studies. It’s good to take the time to reflect and feel proud of how far you’ve come, as well as appreciate the values that you hold. Even if you think jingle bells or dreidels are a bunch of hooey, the holidays are still redemptive and important unto themselves; although a little repose and mindfulness is sometimes needed so we remember. Winter celebrations serve that immutable human need for social connection and recognition of the value behind relationships we spend the rest of the year building.
The holidays may be an opportunity to realize that more important things than assignments, tests, and grades are still part of our lives. Take a break from the stress of class, the stress of the holidays, and dig a little deeper.
There is plenty of magic to be found during the holiday season, whether you spend it celebrating or not, alone or with others. And it doesn’t need to be stressful or lonesome. Instead, the winter holidays can be a period of rejuvenation, thoughtfulness and rest. But if we’re at all resentful about our current station in life or overly preoccupied with, say, the exams and final papers we spent months stressing over, some extra effort is necessary to get the most out of winter break.
For many people, particularly some seniors, the holidays can exacerbate existing feelings of isolation. So spend time with seniors—either your relatives, your friend’s grandparents, or even just a new friend at a retirement home or a mall food court. Spread joy through simple acts of kindness, rather than only gifts. Honour old traditions, and leave space to try new activities that incorporate family, friends, and maybe even strangers. And, sometimes, a smile is all it takes to brighten someone’s day, including your own.
The holidays don’t need to be characterized by religion, tradition, or consumerism. They can truly be about things that are more subtle, such as caring for oneself, appreciation of others, and recognition of what we already have.