Somewhere along the way, most of us have learned the etymological tidbit that the word ‘Holiday’ comes from the terms ‘holy’ and ‘day’ into ‘Holyday’ into ‘Holiday’. Whether every ‘holyday’ was, in fact, celebrated as sacred in one tradition or another at the time this word came to be, or whether it’s simply holy to take a break now and then ( I can really get behind that idea!), is a great argument for anthropologists and historians and sociologists. It’s not, however, my current concern.
At the moment, I’m more interested in how we feel on any holiday. There are days like St. Patrick’s Day or Veteran’s day where we often get parades but many people don’t even get the day off; days like Memorial Day and Labor Day – great for shop sales and your choice of relaxing or getting a major task accomplished. There’s major occasions like Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas – days associated with family dinners, many traditions and specific foods, and tons of preparation. Then there are personal holidays, like taking a week off to have a vacation, or a personal day for something like a birthday or to just relax; and jointly-celebrated personal holidays, like a wedding or housewarming. And finally there are days that may or may not be on calendars and are usually actual holy days to those who take the time to observe them, holidays sacred to specific cultures and religions outside of the nationally recognized ones: Passover or Yom Kippur, Ramadan, Diwali, Imbolc or Beltane; and days like Christmas and Easter that are kept holy by some, and just cultural enjoyment by others.
Regardless of the day, the culture, or the reason, the question is how does it feel? Does it feel right? Are most of the people, foods, traditions you want available? Does it feel too forced, too busy, too frantic? Does it feel like everyone is having a good time except you, or that you’re not really worth anyone’s time or energy? Is it holy or hollow?
We start forming the ideas of what these days should be from the time we start to have ideas about anything at all. Parents – the sort who have the interest and money for such things – make a point of photos for baby’s first Easter or Halloween, ornaments for baby’s first Christmas, make sure kids have special outfits, and the younger the child, the more holidays marked this way and the more special the outfits are likely to be. Parents are on to something with this. It’s mot just that it’s cuter or easier to have pictures of a baby in a wheelbarrow surrounded by pumpkins (try getting your teenager to put up with that!) or even a big deal for the parents; it’s a big deal for kids to notice what celebration looks like.
We form ideas about foods and colours, time of day and weather that ‘should’ be there, and we also form ideas about what’s going on personally. Is the day so busy and ‘important’ that people won’t take as much time to meet my needs? Am I going to feel comfortable in whatever they dress me in? Is one person more important than another? Does my family do things that look like other families? Are they aware of what’s similar or different, and will they talk about it if they are? Holy or hollow starts very young.
Shortly after these basic ideas of scents and sounds, colours and shapes and the whole comfortable or relaxed or frantic or excited or sad or angry energy and pace of the day; we develop ideas about what the day is supposed to mean. Immediate family broadens into extended family or friends. Those broaden into church or synagogue or temple, schools, dance lessons, boy scouts, soccer team. All of these are contrasted and informed by social information through books, music, movies, television, internet… Wherever there is a way for people to communicate in any way, there is a flow of information. By the time we’re adults we’ve accumulated a pretty big pile of ideas about every holiday, and most of us have sorted it into a paradigm of what we think the holiday ‘should’ be… and if we like it.
Now we’re adults. Perhaps barely 20, perhaps getting ready to retire, we’re adults. We’re supposed to have somehow managed to leave the nest, break out of the cocoon, get our adult colours. We’re supposed to know how to get a bank account, have a job and follow a budget; acquire nutritious food and clean the house and get to and fro safely and efficiently. We’re to meet up with at least one other person who also has all these skills to start raising young of our own. Most of us feel barely competent to get our legos put away, but most of us also muddle through. We’re supposed to know how we feel about holidays. Which ones to celebrate, what foods and decorations and favours and gifts and guests. Not to mention the time and energy and money to do it all. If we’ve been thinking all our lives that turkey is better than ham, or roast beef is better than turkey, we’re supposed to make that change… but not upset anyone sharing our holiday. If we’ve decided to go vegetarian, or need to avoid things like wheat or sugar, or noticed that really, egg rolls are the best holiday food in any universe, or decide to eat a simple, fulfilling meal and donate whatever else we would have spent to charity, we’re supposed to figure out how to do it without upsetting anyone. And for anyone who has managed the ‘finding another adult to live with and make a household with’ part of the expectation, we have to manage to incorporate all their values, wants, needs, and traditions, too.
If you’re following along, you may have noticed that the level of this game just increased several times in just that last paragraph. And that’s how a lot of us feel. No matter how much it’s supposed to be about religion, honouring this or that person or group, or spending meaningful time with people we love; it sort of starts to feel like one of those games with all kinds of stuff hidden all over and an infinite number of levels that everyone else is doing better at playing.
That’s for those who aren’t also dealing with a history of abuse, or trauma, or neglect. Or trying to get through the loss of someone close. Or people whose job just laid off half the town. Or who are trying to do all the things everyone else is while on crutches. Anyone who has any kind of trauma to work through isn’t just getting stuck in this game, they’re doing it with one hand chopped off, with a blindfold on, or with a game system that refuses to record points most of the time.
If it’s all a game, is it a Holy day or Hollow day? For a lot of us, that’s really, really hard to know. I talk to people as a professional who tell me it’s hard. I talk to friends who tell me it’s hard. I experience it. It’s hard.
If we follow the traditions laid out by family and religion and culture, and those traditions don’t fill our deep-down needs, it feels hollow. Just going through the motions. Does God really care if someone wears a new dress to church? Is it going to change the world if the pie comes out right? Is it right?
If we follow someone else’s traditions, it’s hard. What if it really does make a difference to go to morning service instead of evening service? What if pie is more fulfilling than cake? What if we’re ignoring people who care? What if?
If we make our own traditions, it’s hard. I am, for the most part, in the ‘make my own tradition’ category. Specifically, I’m in the ‘keep what matters, look at what other people do and borrow ideas I like, and make up the rest until it fits’ category. It’s hard. Right now, on December 23, I’m feeling halfway between holy and hollow.
I’ve changed a lot of traditions as far as religion and spirituality are concerned. I was raised Christian. I have no problems with the Christian belief, and I love many of the traditional Christian carols, decorations, prayers; especially in beautiful buildings with lovely songs and ceremonies.
That belief system is not the best way for me to feel closest to God/Goddess/Deity/Higher Power, though. My religious leanings fall somewhere in the Pagan range. There are groups out there – some not very far, physically – who meet together regularly. I haven’t met one that I feel really right with, yet. My spouse is also pagan, but not quite in the exact same way I am. So that’s two different sets of needs to meet.
One of the common Pagan holidays, and Holy Days, has just passed. Winter Solstice, Yule, Sun-Return, was on December 22 this year. Yesterday. The winter solstice is a pretty common astrological marker for the year, so a LOT of religions and cultures have some kind of major winter holiday. Spiritually, I’m following mine. We exchanged gifts last night after the sun had set. Some years I’d try to stay up all night to watch the sun rise in the morning, but my schedule does need to stay somewhat in sync with my usual one. We set the alarm for very, very early and went outside to watch the sun rise. Then we had a snack and went back to bed. I baked over the weekend and am baking more today to take plates of goodies to friends in the neighbourhood. We change the cloth and items set out on a low table to ones that are more cheerful and celebratory tonight.
I still feel a bit hollow. I miss being a part of a group sharing a spiritual moment together, even if I haven’t found the right one. Several years ago one of the Unitarian churches in town had a labyrinth walk available on Solstice night. I loved going to that! They haven’t held it recently. Holy and hollow.
Many of my pagan friends have family who celebrate Christmas or like to celebrate Christmas themselves. We have family and friends over for Solstice dinner every year, on or very near the solstice. We get to celebrate our day, and friends who are also hosting or visiting people over Christmas don’t have to try to choose. This year we had a total of 14 people (counting us). Some could only stay for a bit. Some were able to come early. Most stayed after dinner to play games. It was fun and festive and wonderful. We decorate with garlands and ornaments and lights, choosing ones that fit our tastes and our spirituality. I’d love to have a tree, but I can’t bring myself to have a cut one, I don’t really like the fake ones, and so far, I haven’t found a variety of evergreen in a pot that grows well in our house. Right now, we have a holiday fern 😉
It’s too small to really decorate, but it’s growing well and has our Tomte (A Tomten is a Swedish gnome-like creatures that help out, especially in the winter).
I loved having people over. It meant so much to me. I get to spend time with my spouse. I finished a batch of cookies earlier and have the butter softening to start another batch now. I’m following my traditions. It doesn’t stop me from feeling incomplete at times today, or any day. Holy and hollow.
When friends celebrate with us for Solstice and then with other for Christmas, it feels to me like they are celebrating different aspects of themselves. For friends who are also some version of Pagan, they get to celebrate their spirituality in some way on Solstice, and visit people they’re close to on Christmas to meet cultural needs, social needs, family needs. Not everyone has culture, religion, and family all connected.
Tomorrow, the 24th, I go to work. I work part-time at the domestic violence center. I’m ‘flex staff’, which is kind of like a substitute teacher. When regular staff can’t be there for whatever reason, they ask someone on flex staff to cover. I volunteered to take shifts on the 24th & 25th. Those days aren’t as important to me as days earlier in the week were, and they’re very important to others I work with. More than that, I suspect I’ll feel this time what I’ve felt in the past taking holiday shifts. I suspect I’ll feel more connected.
I celebrate my religion and my chosen family during the Solstice. At work, it seems, I celebrate my culture. I was in foster care and group housing as a teenager. When you’re in the foster system, it’s hard to hold the traditions you got from your bio parents. Even, maybe especially, if you had a choice and ‘chose’ to leave. If things were good enough to stay, they’d been good enough to keep. If you had to leave, do you want anything of them?
It’s a question with a thousand answers; name and personal items, heritage and traditions, and everyone has to answer it for themselves. In most ways it’s no different a question than the question everyone has to answer throughout their lives. What do I keep from my past, what do leave behind, how much choice do I have? A situation like foster care simply makes it that much more obvious that there’s a choice to be made.
For myself, Thanksgiving and Christmas are two holidays or seasons that ended up mostly in the discard pile. Two years before I turned 18, my then-foster family, my biological parents, and my therapist decided together that it would be in my best interest for me to go back to my biological parents’ house. This move was made shortly before Christmas. My biological parents were jubilant – they saw me returning as an outward sign that everything was fixed, that no one had problems any longer, that we had a ‘normal family’. I was less enthusiastic, scared, and not nearly as certain that this was any kind of good idea.
Sure enough, the next year saw me back in foster care. I was in a group environment, not a private home, by Thanksgiving. Nearly everyone else there had a pass to visit someone for Thanksgiving. The only people who had asked me to visit were the biological parents, and I refused. Several people realized afterward that I had been alone, and that they could have asked. Several people apologized. And yet, in following years, Thanksgiving was with roommates, with people I was dating, with the families of roommates or romantic partners, or alone. Very rarely did friends invite me simply because they wanted me there.
Eventually I realized that I don’t really like Thanksgiving. Most of the traditional foods aren’t personal favourites. My religion has a day of harvest celebration and giving thanks much earlier in the autumn. And as with other holidays, the people I cared most about often told me they were sorry, but they couldn’t invite me to dinner, they were going to parents’, grandparents’, in-laws’ – and it was for family. If there are perhaps 5 or 6 ‘family’ days in American culture, then I was ‘part of the family’ to several people for 360 or 359 days out of the year. I didn’t belong. Hollow. I worked this year on Thanksgiving, and loved it. Holy.
Christmas was a bit different back as a teen. It, too, is a day that I am not ‘part of the family’ on. Yet the same year I was alone for Thanksgiving, I’d moved to a group home by Christmas. None of the counselors and caseworkers wanted to have to be at the group home for Christmas, and again, a lot of the kids had passes to spend the night or longer with someone. This time, one of the caseworkers arranged to take me to her house. Not only that, she was okay coming to pick me up from my biological parents’ house late on Christmas Eve so I could visit them but not have to stay. Her family had presents for me in the morning – Christmas day. I got candy that followed a particular dietary restriction I had, a great, comfy & trendy shirt, and a necklace that I’d admired at the mall. I ate the candy, and over the years have lost the shirt, but I still have the necklace, and always will. I had dinner & played games and watched videos as a part of the family, stayed another night, and went back late the afternoon of the 26th to the group home.
The next year I was ‘on my own’, but living with roommates. One of my roommates’ parents invited us all over, had presents for all of us, dinner, hanging out, family. Belonging. it made a difference. Holy.
This year, and for many years now, I’ve had my own celebrations and been invited to others. I don’t, personally, celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Solstice, although I’m not averse to visiting someone on Christmas, depending on circumstances. But this year I’m spending Christmas with my culture. The domestic violence safehouse has a lot in common with the foster-care group home. No one is staying there because it’s their very top choice, they’re there because they need to be safe. No one will be staying for an extended period, they’re all in the middle of transition, trying to find stable and safe places to live. Everyone has been through things they wish they hadn’t, some feel better and safer than others, yet for right now, they’re okay, and they’re going to celebrate just like anyone else. Many people who would otherwise be there will be out for the day or even overnight with friends or family who are safe, and who say ‘come in’, not ‘you aren’t family’.
At this moment it feels like nothing is going on. I have butter soft on the counter now and there’s plenty of time to bake, but nothing is currently in the oven, so there’s no special holiday smell. People and presents were before today, other people and visits are after today. Right now feels hollow. In a few minutes I plan to start those cookies. The house will start to smell like the holidays. The decoration lights are on. No one is yelling at me, no one is hitting me, I feel safe. I almost have enough cookies to make up plates to take to people. I’m working tomorrow at a place I understand. The hollow will fill up. A hollow filled with the right things is holy.