Holiday Traditions and Traditional Holidays

I enjoyed Pyschochild’s post about “The Meaning Of Holidays”, earlier this week. Holidays are kind of weird to me; although there are observable holidays throughout the year which both require and don’t require a “buy in” (Easter: yes; Arbor Day: no), I don’t really get into a “holiday mode” quite like I do when Fall rolls around. It’s the time of year where a lot of big holidays drive bumper-to-bumper, and if you fit certain configurations, you never really stop observing from October to the start of January.

At the risk of too much navel-gazing, I want to know the why behind this seasonal switch. Holidays are at least days on the calendar, and many people simply observe them as such. I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who truly don’t celebrate any of the year’s end holidays here in the West, since we’re practically drowning in trappings absolutely everywhere; I suppose if one wanted to be cynical, it would be easy to justify a “bah, humbug” on the whole thing. But as someone who isn’t like that, the immersion of the Holidays (with a capital “H”) is part of the allure.

A Brief History of The Past

Let’s be frank: when we say “Holidays”, we’re including Halloween and Thanksgiving (here in the West) as a courtesy. We’re really focused on Christmas and Hanukkah. For the purpose of this monologue, though, I’m talking about Christmas (apologies to my Jewish reader), since it’s the one I celebrate.

Christmas is a good holiday because despite the attempts of those to nail it down to one thing and one thing only, it’s many thing to many people. For some, it’s one of the Ultra Religious holidays. For others, it’s about togetherness that doesn’t need a religious reason. It’s one holiday where everyone is right, and no one is wrong; we get out of it what we want to get out of it, and really that’s kind of the point. No matter how the holiday started,  Christmas is always a “modern holiday”.

Or is it? I read somewhere recently a criticism of how we’re observing Christmas. Specifically, the author stated that we’re not observing a “modern holiday”, we’re observing a “Baby Boomer’s holiday” by allowing the celebrations of the early 20th century to color how we celebrate today. On one hand, I guess he/she is correct, because I instantly understood what he/she meant. On the other hand, I think it’s a short-sighted claim.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

In my view, a lot of what we consider in a non-religious, “traditional” Christmas comes from, or is about, life between 1940-something to 1950-something. The Big Christmas Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas were made in those eras. A lot of the holiday “comfort music” we  have is sung by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, also big during those eras. Even one of the more popular modern holiday films — A Christmas Story — takes place in the 50’s.

Ghosts of Christmas Present

I’m not a fan of “newer” holiday stuff. I think the last decent holiday movie to be made was probably National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, or maybe Scrooged (in the 80’s). I can tolerate Michael Buble, but I want to club Mariah Carey with a 30 pound candy cane. And no good “new” Christmas music as been written. Adult Christmas Wish can suck it. Hard.

Whys and Wherefores

I’m only 40 years old. I wasn’t alive when the “classic” vision of Christmas season was actually the present, and yet I dislike anything that was created for the holiday in the past 30 or so years (generally).

I figure it this way.

We have an unabashed “feel good” vibe in the elder Christmas fare, thanks to World War II. After so much wartime horror, the first Christmas back home must have been the most wonderful thing ever: reuniting with family and friends that no one thought would be seen again. Remembering those who were lost. Being thankful that those who returned from the war returned alive. It was probably amazingly optimistic at that point, and if you’re not concerned with the religious angle, it’s about as close to the “meaning of the season” as you can get: Enjoy, and be thankful for the people around you.

In modern times…well, it sounds like a broken record, but we’ve both lost that honest, traditional feeling while fetishizing it at the same time. Almost every ad or commercial in print or on TV this time of year features imagery of “traditional style” holidays with families eating a festive dinner, or of welcoming friends and family into the home. It doesn’t take a cynic to understand that these ads are attempting to bridge the traditional sense of family and togetherness with how good it is to buy stuff. Outside of commercials, though, we’re also narrowly focused on bitching about the shopping season creep, or whether or not it’s appropriate for municipal grounds to sport a manger.  When it’s generally understood that every shopping outlet is a death-sport arena on Black Friday, is it really a wonder we look back to the days when people enjoyed the holiday in a more honest fashion?

That’s not to say that we here in 2013 can’t enjoy the holiday in an honest fashion; it’s just that I don’t believe that our honest feelings about it are rooted in our own lifetimes. No doubt we have fond memories of Christmas as kids, but as an adult, I really find that modern approaches are lacking in anything worth incorporating into my seasonal outlook. New Christmas songs aren’t about the holiday or the season like White Christmas or Jingle Bells. They’re about interpersonal relationships, and ham-handed attempts to shame us into remembering our humanity. None of them really address The Holiday itself; they’re all as narcissistic as any new song is any other day of the year. Same with new holiday movies (most of which are made for TV by those middle-of-the-road networks like Hallmark or ABC Family).

I may not have grown up in the 40’s and 50’s, but my parents did. Their Christmas was the “traditional” Christmas we’re talking about here, and so it became my traditional Christmas through them. It’s where I feel comfortable, so naturally it’s becoming my daughter’s traditional Christmas, through me. In a way, we are living the “Baby Boomer” vision of the holiday, but it’s partly out of nurture, and not because we view it as intrinsically superior (although in light of my low opinion of modern output for the season, I offer that as a vague generality and not a personal affectation). I have no problem with it; it’s still my holiday as much as anyone else’s. No one owns it, and although I don’t have the same reasons or the same intense source as folks did in the 40’s and 50’s, the feelings are a lot stronger, and a lot more comforting, than what I feel I can get from a more “modern” interpretation.

How long will this go on? How many more generations will Bing Crosby last as a cornerstone of Christmas? Maybe not forever, which is why I think the unnamed author who accused us of “celebrating someone else’s holiday” isn’t seeing the forest for the trees. We’re not so far away from the Christmas of our ancestors that we can begin to take comfort in images of adults fist-fighting over the last toy in Wal-Mart as the “true meaning of Christmas”. Many of us grew up with those who experienced the Boomer’s Christmas first hand, and like any generational shift, moving away from that will probably happen gradually as each subsequent generation takes parts of what came before it, and what it creates on it’s own, until the oldest parts of tradition have been marginalized to the atomic level. At some point, I would expect that people will prefer The Santa Claus over Miracle on 34th Street, but I really hope I’m dead by that time, because I don’t think I’d want to be around when that happens.