Critical Thinking, “Ethan Brand,” and the Holiday Spirit

We happen to be a family that celebrates Christmas, and we have tended to do it in a fairly traditional secular way: tree, stockings, presents, sit-down dinner. For a week or so before the actual day lights twinkle stereotypically in the living room and cats sip spruce-infused water from the tree-stand. Each of us maintains a hidey-hole for gifts and avoids the burden of wrapping until the last minute. There is egg nog.

At some point in my late adolescence I remember deciding that this kind of celebration, with more-or-less mandated giving, orchestrated good cheer, and choreographed gestures of comfort and joy stripped, in my home, of religious content, was indeed a humbug. Any day can be a fine day for giving or receiving a gift, and a little more spontaneity in the exchange can deepen its meaning. Why not find other days for random family gatherings or acts of kindness? Why Christmas? Didn’t the ritualization of pretty much everything about the day empty it of meaning and eviscerate “the true spirit of Christmas,” whatever that might be?

It wasn’t so much that I was Scrooge—I wasn’t trying to save a few bucks—but rather that I was taking my role as a self-styled cultural critic to a logical end. I still can’t say that I was wrong about anything, but I had missed something rather important. I could engage in my own personal boycott of Christmas, but if no one else was, what was my point except to add a bit of critical discomfort to the lives of family and friends? (Which may have been my point. But still.) I could reject the holiday spirit, but if everyone else had it—for whatever reason, because it was in the air, because they felt Christmas or the Solstice or something similar very deeply, or just because they were “s’posed to”—then my little boycott was not just a statement but an active turning away from community.

And in my personal spiritual construct, turning away from community was in fact the definition of the wrong thing to do. I had learnt this from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Ethan Brand,” where this rejection is in fact the Unpardonable Sin. So I made those around me suffer through one season, and then I decided that I could acknowledge and participate in the rituals of the holiday. To be sure, I have always found gift-giving hard, because I so want to quote-what-is-the-unpardonable-sin-asked-the-lime-burner-it-is-a-sin-that-grew-within-my-own-nathaniel-hawthorne-69-92-80find the perfect thing for each recipient and I remember all too keenly the disappointments of some of my own childhood Christmases. But I also know, as a parent now, that there is something very nice about sitting around with family and watching others be surprised and occasionally genuinely delighted by another’s gift. I like the smell of the tree, even if I don’t really love egg nog.

At some point I suspect many interested children will question the rituals and traditions with which they live, and I believe wholeheartedly that they should. Whatever the holiday or occasion—and it certainly doesn’t have to be Christmas—it will mean more when the young person comes to it on his or her own terms, having tested it, questioned it, thought it through. I suppose this risks full-on rejection, but that is an individual’s right, just as it is an individual’s responsibility to figure out what he or she owes to family and community and how to make good—or not—on that obligation. I may have taken my theology from “Ethan Brand” (others will find better, richer sources), but we must all decide for ourselves where the “spirit” and the rational self and our place in the world intersect.

I am sorry for having annoyed folks with my Christmas boycott many years ago, but in my own way I grew from it, and when I say “Happy Holidays!” to some one nowadays I mean it: I want them to be happy. And I hope that they have thought about why they might be happy, or even how they could be happier or be making others happier. Being in the holiday spirit, I think, entails thinking about what this might actually mean. And meaning, of course, is what matters.happy-holidays

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