Holiday season in America is, despite what the family cards, Hallmark movies, and soldiers in the longstanding fictitious War For/Against Christmas say, a bit of a mixed bag. Are sitting around a fire or participating in a deeply felt religious observance heart-warming human traditions? Absolutely. But the holidays don’t just represent an opportunity to be with family and participate in liquored-up reflection. They also offer an annual opportunity for Americans to get fat, go broke, and be sad. Even the merriest of us know this to be true.
Get at because there’s nothing to do but eat and because the erroneous notion that calories don’t matter from mid- November through early January is deeply ingrained within our culture and also fat because we are encouraged to equate food with comfort and being with family, despite being a joy in many ways, stresses people out. Go broke because the average American spends $906 on holiday shopping and more than half of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. Be sad because of the first two things and also because sometimes merriments and even smiling decorations seem to exist at odds with our realities. Sad because it’s so easy to buy into the idea that the holidays should be uncomplicated and they never really are.
It is, therefore, a good time of the year to listen to other peoples’ advice in orders to avoid fatness, brokeness, and sadness. And the most salient piece of advice — the piece of advice that helps the most that no one really wants to hear — is that the holidays are best understood as marketing bullshit. Religious people will push back on this and understandably so, but the “holidays” are a bit different than Christmas or Chanukah or Diwali. The holidays are a broader cultural celebration and, make no mistake, that celebration is designed to move units. Understanding and accepting this allows adults to both gain some perspective on the importance of the thing, which empowers people to make it there own, and really appreciate how amazing it is that people have turned a haphazard end of the year sales push into something beautiful and resonant.
Understanding the holidays as beautiful painting brushed across the ratty canvas of financial ambition really helps with the whole broke and sad dynamic (less with the food) by allowing adults and, in particular, parents to keep unreasonable expectations at arm’s length and remember that the accoutrements are secondary to the thing. The thing, in this case, being family or, barring that, friends or general bonhomie. The holiday — as portrayed through every medium, on every channel looping holiday specials, and playing on repeat in the muzak of our minds — may be a celebration of self as well as a fuck-fest of good vibes, but it doesn’t need to be such an explicitly orgiastic karmic drain. It’s okay if it’s just an excuse to think about others or do something nice. And it’s okay to do this with or without belief and with or without the go-ahead of advertising copy.
The key to not going broke is not succumbing to the caloric idea that what happens between Thanksgiving and New Years stays between Thanksgiving and New Years. Not so. Indulgence has consequence — not the least of which is the desire for more indulgence. The laws of financial prudence don’t apply. The laws of nutrition apply. The need for self-care remains profound. One of the weird realities of the season is that a specific mythology has been created (at least for Christian kids) to specifically imply that logic and reason have no place in the Christmas season and that desire can exist outside of the content of opportunity cost. Kids want everything from Santa because, in some sense, Santa is understood to have everything. Santa’s margins are irrelevant. This indoctrinates children when they’re very young into believing that a specific time of the year can be economically exceptional (as least for the middle and upper class). Unfortunately, it isn’t so. Americans learn that when their bills show up mid-January. And that’s a harsh awakening for those operating under the implicit understanding that everyone does this and it must therefore work out.
What is exceptional about the season is that, for a brief period of time, adults and children are both encouraged to express unmitigated joy and demonstrate selflessness. This is affordable, non-fattening, joy-bringing, and, let’s be real, often difficult. But to the degree that cause and effect cannot be denied when pants strain after a season of yule log and hot chocolate lattes, it cannot also not be denied when generosity or kindness or faith is rewarded. Want to be happy over the holidays? Remember that the “holidays” are bullshit, but Christmas isn’t and Chanukah isn’t (alright, maybe a bit) and making cookies with the kids isn’t either — just so long as you don’t eat the cookies.