You know that debate about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? This column isn’t about that. For people who feel strongly about this issue, one more op-ed on the subject won’t matter.
And for a lot of the rest of us, the “debate” is beside the point, besides a few points maybe, including what Jesus’ birth stands for to millions of people: the sudden, moving presence of love, peace, and goodwill in the world. It means other things, I know, but the complete list probably doesn’t include moralizing about which words to use during pleasantries on the street. I could add that the word “holiday” actually derives from the Old English for holy day (haligdæg), but I won’t.
Still, if our cultural moment feels to you at odds with the season, you can help right things by resisting this country’s retreat from holidays themselves, that is from what holidays once more routinely meant: ritual communal celebrations, affirmations of human fellowship. Those would be useful right about now.
In the 1970s and early '80s, when I was young, my parents usually threw a holiday party between Christmas and New Year’s. Most of the grown-ups in our neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, came. Our living room teemed.
Many years later I realized more fully how golden a thing these parties were, but I know I felt some version of that at the time, even as a kid, maybe especially as a kid, since these events always laid a cherishing hand upon me, my parents’ youngest child, the taker of winter coats and furs at the front door.
As with most good parties, these were dependably buoyant from the high spirits people came in. But the specific occasion mattered too. My parents — my Lutheran mother and Jewish-atheist father — made it matter, less by the party’s trappings than the spirit of their hosting and its ritual recurrence in that velvet time after Christmas. On those nights, neighbors of passing acquaintance became an arrangement of affection. It wasn’t all Fezziwig perfection.
Dad once, mid-anecdote, caught the end of his necktie on fire standing near a candle; one year I grabbed the wrong canister in the garage and spread fireplace ash on our icy sidewalk instead of sand (it was dark!); and there were always crescendos of panic during preparations. But when all the guests had gone and we heaped our plates with food, Mom would say, “Well, kids,” and we’d sit in the quiet aftermath of joy.
If this sounds like suburban nostalgia, consider the length and variety of its precedent. Novelists, for one, have invoked scenes of ritual festive communion across centuries and demographics, almost always longingly. Readers can party-hop from Fezziwig’s rollicking English mid-1800s, middle-class dance (in Dickens’s "A Christmas Carol"), to the elaborate summertime Bowden Reunion in Sarah Orne Jewett’s late-1800s rural Maine (in "The Country of the Pointed Firs"), to Dinner on the Grounds in Crystal Wilkinson’s modern Appalachia (in "The Birds of Opulence"), where the Black community of Opulence, Kentucky, has celebrated itself each Fourth of July “since slave times.” On the same holiday you can find hundreds of Latino families in a kind of mosh pit of cookouts in Lake Chabot Regional Park in Alameda County, California.
If you have any version of this in your life each year, count and relish your blessings. According to a 2018 study of community life by the Pew Research Center, most Americans “never meet” their neighbors “for parties or get-togethers.”
Michael Walzer, the political theorist, asserts that the public ritual of holidays is “in radical decline” in western culture, its place occupied now by that isolating phenomenon, vacation. In Ancient Rome, “holidays ... were full — full of obligation but also of celebration, full of things to do, feasting and dancing, ritual and plays. This was when time ripened to produce the social goods of shared solemnity and revelry. ... We have lost that sense of fullness; and the days we crave are the empty ones, which we can fill by ourselves as we please.”
Let’s not return to Ancient Rome, but oh, America, what would we not give for that ripening of time, that sense of communing fullness?
Nearly all the guests from my parents’ parties have left this world. Many were old even then, held for me now in the memory of those nights: the funny retired German professor and his irreverent wife; the widow whose lawn I mowed and who rarely left her house; the county judge who looked like a judge, tall and courteous and deep-voiced; the storied Michigan athlete, an All-American at the university in the 1920s, bandy-legged and gentle. And my mother, middle-aged then, is now five years gone. Well, kids.
Like vacations, the holidays are sold to us as a family time, isolated and fleeting. Can we, even now, make them something more, an enactment of community and joy? Step into revelry, people, as host or guest, this month or whenever. It’s not so tall an order. Less tall than forgotten. Forgotten and needed and holy.
Ben Slote is a professor of English at Allegheny College.