New Years noisemaker

(WOMENSENEWS)–The great, even miraculous, thing about holidays and other special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries is the power of a simple date, or a season, to inspire large and small collectives (from couples to families to entire nations or religious groups)–literally, on cue–to consider our relationships with one another.

The dangerous, even frightening, thing about holidays is the same power that collectively binds us also obscures the truth that it is just another day, or set of days, in the year. We give it all of the authority we mistakenly think it owns. When people forget that the day or season doesn’t hold magical powers, but that we do, two problems arise:

  • Holidays (New Year’s Eve now upon us, is a great example) and other, otherwise happy and joyful, celebratory events can create a lot of unhappiness and stress.
  • The collective values these occasions were designed to celebrate are forgotten or devalued on all other days of the year.

It is a lot of pressure to put on one day or season. It is fabulous when we pull it off and devastating when we cannot. Think about the Christmas-celebrating households with children whose parents are out of work during the holidays. If that experience is unfamiliar, perhaps you’ve celebrated one or more Valentine’s Days without a fitting suitor: Suddenly, the relationship status about which you were completely fine becomes an existential crisis.

Stress Managing Guides

Or maybe you’ve seen a Bridezilla/Groomzilla in action because he or she views that day as the most important one of his or her life. That’s a lot of pressure. Not surprisingly, the intensity of preparation that goes into observing Ramadan, Passover or Diwali have all inspired "how-to" guides about managing the stresses of these cherished, multiday celebrations.

One of my dear friends recently called me, berating herself for having forgotten my birthday. I told her a far greater measure of her friendship is what happens in the 364 days that are not my birthday. If her memory is a test of our friendship, then I’m the one who has failed.

This brings me to the second problem with holidays: I had this epiphany many years ago when my ex celebrated my birthday in grand style but was a jerk most other days of the year. I decided then I’d much prefer kind, respectful interactions every day, rather than the flashy gestures.

Homeless shelters and food banks feel much the same way about financial donations and volunteer responses they receive during the holidays. Assistance is needed and deeply appreciated for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but resources are also needed during the entire year. People need to eat on a Tuesday in March as much as the fourth Thursday in November.

Holidays at Best, Worst

At their best, the formal celebration of holidays and special occasions are what we call ceremonies of renewal. They invite us to temporarily suspend our routine to reflect on and recommit to our collective and personal values. We ask ourselves whether we honored these values over the past year and may devise new ways to do so in the year ahead.

At their worst, holidays and special occasions get associated with values seen as inconvenient or impractical in our everyday lives — like enchantment, hope, devotion, generosity, compassion, gratitude or even slowing down. When the day’s over, we put those values back up on the shelf and count down the days until that rarified air returns.

These problems don’t happen intentionally; they happen accidentally. The accident is caused by an unexamined belief that various holidays and other special dates are magic time containers of our shared values: Just add water (in the form of perfectly timed and elaborate preparations) and mix.

To avoid these problems, consider a conversation with your loved ones about ways to take off the pressure while also creating time for personal and collective renewal. Note that others’ willingness to modify celebrations will vary because of the special power we associate with ritual. Nonetheless, rather than losing the magic, a new way of interacting with one another during these key times of the year can empower us to create magic everyday.

I eventually met and married a man who surprises me on random days of the year with large and small gestures, which are only sometimes material gifts. We both routinely forget our anniversary until several days or weeks later, at which point we laugh and make time to toast another year where love and devotion stays in practice every day.