Everything is Made Up Anyway

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Thomas Hawk / Flickr

Here’s the first thing I want to say: Weird holidays are fine. In fact, all holidays were always weird, remember? And the next thing I want to say is: Now is the time to reassess, reconfigure, and existentially zhuzh up our family traditions.

I wrote about this recently for Forge:

Something that’s helped me as I stare down the barrel of the weirdest holiday season ever is to remember that many of our standard holiday traditions aren’t so sacred anyway, and were in fact landed upon out of convenience or coincidence. As Sasha Sagan, author of the book For Small Creatures Such As We: Rituals For Finding Meaning In Our Unlikely World, told me, “Everything is new on the scale of human history. The things we’re holding on to because we feel this pressure from our relatives or ancestors, we can only hold on for so long. Everything will change and always does.”

Take Thanksgiving, for example. The holiday was the brainchild of a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale. As Livia Gershon wrote in Forge last year, “Thanksgiving as we know it was the successful culmination of Hale’s campaign in 1863, when President Lincoln declared a national holiday. Even then, Hale’s ideal Thanksgiving looked back toward an idealized, less harried past, before railroads and soot-belching factories.” And her holiday of course commemorated a sketchily-recorded meal between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag that likely included “a menu featuring fowl, venison, and corn.”

After all, our “traditional” menu of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie coalesced in the early 20th century, largely dictated by the marketing campaigns of various brands. So if you eschew a big elaborate gathering, and you decide to order some peking duck instead, you’re kind of being even more traditional, maybe? It’s all relative. But it’s not like your foremothers were eating Stovetop stuffing and hoping you would someday honor them by doing the same.

Even our “religious” winter holidays aren’t exactly sacred in the way we often imagine. Like with Thanksgiving, a lot of our “classic” Christmas trappings were invented pretty recently. In the English-speaking world anyway, Christmas was a quiet religious celebration when Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol helped to shape it into a more secular, family-focused feast day.

As Ellen C. Caldwell writes in JSTOR Daily, “Dickens’ story of Scrooge and the Cratchits transformed the American Christmas dinner…The importance of the private (decorated) home was also part of Charles Dickens’ influence.” Caldwell notes that this more modern tradition of Christmas takes as a theme a juxtaposition of what is with what should be. (In other words, if every Christmas celebration leaves you feeling slightly off-kilter, that’s by design.)

Key to modern Christmas is a sort of deification of home and family. But is it crucial to go home to your family of origin for Christmas, just because the song says so? Did you know the song “I’ll be Home For Christmas” was written from the point of view of a soldier in World War II? Yes it’s dramatic and moving but look, you’re not exactly looking at a holiday in the trenches. It’s okay to FaceTime your family and then chill out with some Hallmark movies.

What’s more, as Lorraine Boissoneault writes for the Smithsonian Magazine, our red-suited, jolly iteration of Santa Claus was created by Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast — red indicating his allegiance with the North, of course. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker, Nast took “a minor Central European folk saint, dimly recalled from his German childhood, and turn[ed] him into the personification of American Materialism, coming down the chimney and shaking with joy.” From there, Christmas started its transformation into a family-based holiday, with its focus on children. A study published by the Association for Consumer Research notes that Dickens’ Christmas feast helped to set the stage for today’s materialistic celebrations, transforming the holiday into “the National Festival of Consumption.” This narrative helped “to define Christmas as sacred by being extraordinary and set apart from everyday life. It is the same spirit that…… characterizes contemporary consumer culture: the triumph of hedonism over utilitarianism.” The veneration of capitalism is disguised by the sparkle of “Christmas spirit,” a muddy concept if ever there was one.

And so on. Hanukkah has been shoehorned into its modern American role as the Jewish Christmas; Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration invented in 1966. So why do we spin out when we feel like we won’t be able to celebrate things “just right” or “like we always have in the past”? We can free ourselves, I think, from all of that.

It will be interesting to see how this year’s improvised or abbreviated or transformed celebrations affect the way we perform these holidays down the road. After all, Sagan points out, “it’s under extreme circumstances that traditions and holidays start. When things are going normally we continue on the same road, but when there’s a sharp turn, that’s how things change, how the tributaries break off. Every holiday is about something out of the ordinary happening. Look at the major holidays. I mean, underneath the mythology, yes most of the holidays are about solstices, equinoxes, marking times of the year or the passage of time. But the stories we tell are almost always about a dramatic break from the ordinary flow of things.”

Oh and another thing. I’m all about marking the passage of time, and about pausing to work some celebratory feast days in our monotonous pandemic lives. But while we’re thinking of adjusting ways to celebrate, let’s remember that throughout all of history, “much of the work of feast days was/is done by women, already usually chained to the work of making food for others,” as Megan Elias, director of the gastronomy program at Boston University and author of several books about the history of food, points out. “But now women can have jobs and be vice president, so the ‘honor’ of preparing the feast foods isn’t so special. And yet, lots of women still invest their turkeys with their egos because the traditions are so deeply embedded in culture.”

I love making pie as much as the next vaguely obsessive baker (no I actually really do, please share your crust tips in the comments, I still have not perfected my lattice), but that doesn’t mean the entire holiday season needs to become my second (or let’s be real, third or fourth) job every year. We’re all expecting ourselves to work like we don’t have to be domestic goddesses, and domestic goddess like we don’t work, right? I’m sorry Tillie Olson, we’ll get it eventually.

Here we are, in a dramatic break from the ordinary flow of things. There’s no sense in fighting the tributary. We can find a new and better way to do things. In fact, we have to, there’s a dang pandemic on. Let’s go with the weirdness. After all, everything was always weird anyway.

Senior Editor, Forge @ Medium // Bylines: New York Times, Oprah, Slate // Latest novel: Unseen City https://redhenpress.org/products/unseen-city-by-amy-shearn

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