Even without the nuclear-green glow of the Grinch, there’s something surreal about the holidays in America. The traffic, the constant lure to buy and give, and the rush to donate to charity — for tax purposes, naturally. Then there are the many religious holidays, this year including the semi-cultish inclusion of a new “Star Wars” movie.
With so many meta stories, I have trouble explaining all the origins and realities, myths and legends, truths and customs to my children. As we lighted the first Hanukkah candle in front of the Christmas tree again this year, the children grilled me on everything from the Maccabees to Mohammed, the yule log to the origins of Satan. My ministerial fellowship review board would have been more effective had it been made up of 10- to 13-year-olds with plates of lasagna on their laps.
The orthodox I’m sure shake their heads saying, “That’s what you get for a mixed household.” And by orthodox I mean everyone from those-of-one-belief households to those who shop exclusively at Target — because these days it seems like too many of us are far too willing to shake our heads at others and say tsk. We all seem to become orthodox about something, particularly in times of fear.
Perhaps one of the more alarming aspects of the holiday season in the United States for the past 14 years is that we rarely acknowledge that we are at war, by decree or by default. I recall the sobering holiday of 1990, looking out on a cold night sky and wondering what would become of my classmates and fiance in the new year as we embarked on the Gulf War. That holiday was a somber one, as were the following ones when we sent troops into Somalia and Bosnia.
The holiday of 2001 was different for those of us with ties to any of the places directly affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and again for those sensitive to the movements of the U.S. armed forces. We soon understood that family traditions are only as strong as the people who practice them. We came to see how loss can strengthen or undermine our connections. While the chorus of buy and give and “here’s another funny, ugly sweater” continued to maddeningly ring from anything with a speaker, we came to discern what our grandparents had seen before — fear.
We felt the fear of the unknown battlefield, the fear of losing soldiers, the fear of new rules in new conflict. We saw what the new war looked like, what the new injured look like, what the new veteran care looked like, what war ethics were and weren’t. It was all murky and scary. Exactly as war should be.
And we have been seeing this for years, because now we have eyes all over the world. So perhaps you are coming into this season and you are feeling somewhat strange. The music, the shiny decorations, the overhyped happiness — is it a little much for you and you are wondering why? Maybe you haven’t had any connection to the shootings in California, Colorado, France, Mali, Nigeria, South Carolina — but you still feel uneasy. You feel sad, wounded in spirit. You imagine yourself in these places, wondering what you would do. You then imagine if it were your place of work, your doctor’s office, your prayer meeting, your night out on the town. Your home.
You seek answers. There must be some way to stop this. And there are — many ways. But you feel like all dialogue you hear is inflammatory and hateful and you feel more hopeless. And you begin to get angry. Does any of this sound familiar? This is the season to pause and reflect. It will help.
It may feel that the season of lights is besmirched by the red and blue of emergency vehicles and the flickering of candles at vigils honoring victims of violence. But the holiday stories, both faithful and secular, were not forged in tinsel but in tears.
In Hanukkah there is the surprise of warmth and light in a time when there has been violence, depression and despair. In the Christian story of Christmas the toxic mayhem of taxes, religious intolerance and poverty are overridden by strangers who come together in hope for a better future forever from impossibly humble beginnings. In Kwanzaa, multiple generations study and celebrate together their heritage and hopeful future, including an outward focus called Ujima: the collective building of community where the problems of our brothers and sisters are our own. In the American cultural story of the holidays, people from around the world come together to live in communities where all children are looked after no matter where they’re from or how much money they have. We gather in a conspiracy of kindness telling a story of a man in a red suit who loves all, and who is really each of us.
These traditions weren’t started by happy people looking for a hobby, or entrepreneurs making a buck. This is a time of year in which the traumatized of many cultures recognized their pain and instituted rituals to recall how they got through it.
We are not alone in our suffering of 2015. Humanity has seen it before, and survived it before. This is the time of year when we tell the story through faith traditions, through cultural practices, through lights in windows, through family gatherings. This story is about how to make it through pain. Listen for these stories this season and may peace be with you. S
Alane Miles is an ordained minister, freelance teacher, writer, and grief and bereavement counselor.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.