The Holidays

It's that time of the year when people talk about the time of year. The other day I overheard two women telling each other all the things they like about "the holiday season." Under what circumstances does one make an effort to list the good qualities of a thing? "But what I really love," one said, "is the lights." The best she had to say was the very quality this season most glaringly lacks (pun intended). The sun sets at five, and we have a "lights festival." These semantic sleights make me worry about the psyche of my pale ancestors. Northern Europeans seem of necessity a confused lot. I can't help but think, stuck in the holiday vortex, that the idea of sin must've come from this same twisted seasonal logic--if the darkest time of year is the best time of year, then summer must be the worst. Heat and light are luxuries that we must not indulge in, lest we be miserable the other half of the year.

So these are "the holidays"; we get through the dark by inflicting our company on each other as a kind of good cheer. In this, too, it is a time of contradictions. We have the movie cliche that "you shouldn't be alone on Christmas," yet it is a time when friends confide how miserable they and their company are. It is time of gift-giving, but because of this it is also a time of such monumental consumption that shops run out things that during any other part of the year they would have coming out of their ears. It is a time of plenty, and therefore a time of scarcity. It is when those of us with disposable incomes give to "those less fortunate," so that we can forget about fortune the rest of the year. It is a time of relaxation, yet notoriously a time of extreme stress. It is a time of feasting, and therefore it is a time of crowds tripping over each other in the supermarket, glaring at each other for taking the last carton of egg nog. Which, like holiday beer (pumpkin) and holiday coffee (candy cane latte), is a contradiction of a commodity: something so gross you can't sell it the rest of the year. It's also a tautology: because its desirability is time-limited, it becomes more desirable. It's like a dog that lives for two months. It might smell of its own feces, but you love that dog. It's going to die soon.

The holiday split runs deep. I complain about the darkness, but I make it worse by waking up at noon. I make fun of looking forward to the lights in the dark, but I sometimes walk at night just to see the lights in the fog. I think the succession of holiday gatherings resemble nothing so much as a gauntlet, but I look forward to seeing those I don't otherwise see much. But does one see them? Egg nog is drinkable because it, like everything else during the holidays, is caught in the specular mediation of the season. Everything reflects back as the holidays.

23 December 2012