‘Tis the season to not be jolly
We are in the midst of the pandemic season. With many metaphorical and literal flaming problems in an increasingly unhinged world, it seems that the only markers of the passage of time are the days that have been deemed ‘special’ by custom and habit: thanksgiving, halloween, christmas — holidays.
Holiday names throughout this piece are intentionally decapitalized to kickstart the process of detoxing from these subtly problematic modes of thinking and living.
Holidays transcend the mundane in a way that brings out a celebratory — and I argue, a thoroughly exploitable — mood in all of us. These regular interrupters of normal life are dotted throughout the Gregorian calendar, with a particular concentration around the time colloquially known as holiday — or as I like to call it, consumption — season.
Whether you try to fight it or not, most holidays have become pageantries of consumption. Halloween has become free marketing for Big Candy, completely divorced from its Catholic and Pagan origins. Don’t even get me started on the capitalistic sub-holiday abominations such as black friday and cyber monday.
Critiquing the corruption of these ‘traditional’ holy, community-building days into the consumerist, godless husks of today is a favourite pastime of conservative pundits and people who hate fun. However, there are other, saner arguments against our current variation of holidaying that speak to a fundamental question: what are we really celebrating?
Whose ideas of God are embedded in the days that have been deemed special? (Y’know, because most Western holidays are somewhat Christian in name.) What sort of community are we subtly encouraged to build around those days? Who is excluded from these celebrations of dubious socio-theological-political origin?
Although we can talk about abolishing holidays in jest, there are cultural assumptions that underlie many of these so-called celebrations. On a serious note, it is more than a little disingenuous to celebrate thanksgiving — a holiday purportedly originating from the gratitude and friendship between the first contact of Mi’kmaq peoples and French explorers — when we live on unceded, unsurrendered lands and carve turkey while Mi’kmaq people are being terrorized for practicing treaty rights.
Institutions often subvert tradition to subtly suggest and reinforce ideal modes of behaviour to uphold their own power. As Christine Sismondo writes in Macleans, governments often use holidays to promote a vision of national and cultural uniformity. Holidays connect days off from work and school to artificial celebrations that uplift their own dominant and rarely-challenged narratives. This lets the state effectively co-opt our personal interest of wanting rest to reinforce its desired values — not that students or the working underclass ever truly get the holidays off.
Go be a patriot on patriot day. Go be a family person on family-designated holidays. Go be a pliant and willing consumer on those holidays that have lost all modern meaning beyond being a vehicle for the movement of money and being a party theme (st. patrick’s day is a particularly egregious offender).
The holiday season is a source of anxiety for many, not least because of the sheer multitudes of expectation draped on people like ill-fitting halloween costumes. Whether it is the conversation topics or people you’ll have to avoid in socially mandatory gatherings or the financial and social pressure of the performative acts like gift-giving on valentine’s day, the holidays make us dance like a marionette.
The fact that we’re in a pandemic and somehow have to pretend that there’s still a way to celebrate holidays normally and safely only further highlights that not everyone has the capacity to enjoy the holiday season.
My heart goes out to those who are away from family. Those who no longer have family. Those who are struggling to provide the ‘holiday experience’ for their kids. Those who will never see the same level of state recognition for their traditional days of rest and remembrance. Those manning the drive-thru at Tim Hortons on christmas eve. Those who spend their nights not knowing where they’ll get their next meal, let alone how to celebrate these holidays which require so much and give back so fleetingly.
Perhaps you will have a picture-perfect, heartwarming time this year, surrounded by those you love. Perhaps you will find beauty in the brokenness and forge together a string of precious holiday memories in spite of everything. Perhaps you feel that you’ve just read the most ridiculous 700-word article that the student newspaper has printed this year.
In the meantime, I will continue to dream of the things humanity could achieve if we channeled all this misplaced, anxious holiday energy towards bringing life and light to where there is none.