The holiday season arrives every year as a collection of expectations, the promise of rewards whose coming has sustained everyone through the darker, more work-intensive periods of the year.
Those expectations are not the same from individual to individual.
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For me, the release of the holiday season has always come in a particular form of collective down-time.
The holidays are, in my deepest imagination, a period during which all rules and all activity end. Family members are drawn together not by “doing things” together so much as by being “down” together, by developing—for once during the year—the particular sort of intimacy that comes from being inactive in collectivity, from seeing one another passively in mutually inactive states.
For some in my family over the years, this meant television for days on end. For others, this meant quiet time reading in solitude behind a closed door. For others, it was a matter of undirected talking or reminiscing. All were able to observe, in a quiet way that drew no attention to itself, what others did to unwind—what others did when there was nothing to do.
There was an unwritten rule that no plans could be made or proposed. To do so would have shattered an unwritten detente, drawn time and choices back into issue, would have required interaction that for some were irreconcilable with the notion of non-being-in-the-world that was always woven through the holiday expectations of others.
And so it was that on the morning following a major holiday, all would gradually make appearances and, in some cases, follow these with disappearances back into rooms or corners. Little would be said; littler still would be done. There was no talk of the future, either future hours or future days.
For a moment, at least, the world came to an end, realized in ultimately in the willfull anti-climax of holiday ecstasy. A new world would surely come once the holiday season was over, and everyone knew this at some unspoken level, but for a few days at least, all were between worlds, caught between the end of one and the start of another. There was nothing to be done but to observe what others were inclined to do at the end of the world.
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Those days of complete emptiness, open horizons, limited interaction, yet complete co-presence are amongst my most essential memories of childhood and are the crux of the holiday release toward which I have looked forward every year.
As it turns out, however, this tableaux is more and more difficult to realize; a single thought of the future, a single plan made, a single mention of practical things brings the world back to life again for all; the moment is lost. Ritual and anticipation can only suspend existence outside of time if they are carefully nurtured—if the fiction is gently, painstakingly, and interactively built and respected.
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Rather importantly, this is not everyone’s idea of the perfect holiday season or the perfect holiday release, and it has always been difficult to reconcile the impulse with the very strong competing impulse in the broader culture for the holidays to be a season of frenetic activity and involvement.
It is inevitable that things are changing as others marry into the family and as my own children grow. It is already clear that the previous tacit agreement about the natures of the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays can no longer be sustained.
In short, I’m less and less able to depend on the holiday season for the particular rewards that it once provided to me. I suspect I’ll be able to develop some other avenue in my life that provides for the same escape. It will likely shift, however, from a particular form of collective experience to very different one of individual and sequestered experience, caught in fleeting moments without the awareness of others.
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I suspect that the cultural difference at issue is founded in different valorizations of silence and inactivity as they occur in togetherness.
For me, silence and inactivity are as central to social life as their opposites. I suspect that one cannot know or be properly intimate with another without spending a certain number of hours physically together yet unengaged in speech, eye contact, or ordered activity.
For others, however, this kind of time makes no sense; it is wasted, or at the very least, negative space in the context of human relationships. Time spent in silence facing away from one another in the same room does, according to this other value system, nothing for a relationship. It indicates merely that no one has yet thought of or mustered the energy to engage in meaningful activity or to speak to one another.
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It’s strange as a parent to believe that this kind of time is so important for the development of healthy personhood, yet to know that within the context of mainstream western culture, it may be nearly impossible to organically find.
To try to acheve by open insistence, however, is to try to accomplish by force something that is at its very core the antithesis of force. It is a ritual whose invisibility, unnameability, and easy taken-for-grantedness are central to its substance.