“I don’t know why you Christians do it to yourselves every year.” a friend remarks, amused at my harried expression after a casual How’s it going?; it being our hurried hunts for gifts, prep of special treats and extended family arrivals; rituals we call Christmas, otherwise known as the holiday marathon.
We could buy everything months in advance. Wrap it and tuck it away. Make food that freezes well. Tell family members to pick another day in December, close enough to the ho ho holiday, and keep the 25th for private and cosy celebrations. Escape to the hills, beach, or the bathroom for the duration of the party.
Some do, those sensible types, right about now likely sipping on boozy straws as they attempt to do the year-end crosswords.
The rest of us fill the streets and shops in the last moments squeezed in after work, and roll truffles late into the night, muttering like demented elves. A fun game is to ask friends and family, say about December 20th, So are you all ready? The human face has so many ways to contort.
Human life would not be possible, in the way we know it, without ritual because ritual is really the engine of all human institutions. Through ritual, we come to have a sense that something beyond us is moving us together and giving us a sense of coordination and cohesion. It is really powerful.
Brad Shore, Centre on Myth and Ritual in American Life
I love that idea. A coordinated effort, like all those picture books of Santa’s workshops, where every worker has a mission and the clock ticks in time to sleigh bells.
Demonic laugh track rolls out as I line up the unwrapped gifts, long after bedtime Christmas Eve, in time to the snores of sleeping family members. Now there’s coordination.
The work of Christmas is left to that middle layer of the family, the one too old for Santa’s magic, too young to claim seniors benefits. I’m not sure when that happened. Somewhere around the time my middle layer(s) showed up.
We do it to ourselves, a cousin tells me, as we bump into one another in the streets, mid marathon, when the muscles are starting to whine.
Ritual is identity. We make rows of cookies and watch the same holiday specials because they remind us of our childhood, of the very framework, tilted or not, that give us a sense of ourselves.
Whether ritual goes off the rails depends on temperament, budget, and power failures. If you’re very lucky, you’ll find meaning outside of all the holiday hoopla; in a chorister showing up at your door, raising money for a beleaguered church community, a child’s glance up the chimney.
My marathon may not be close to the last leg. Still, I’ve figured out how to grab sustenance mid-race. Take a breather in one of my ancestor’s oldest traditions: tea time with my favourite people. In our case, a gussied up version at a Toronto hotel did the trick.
I’m back, ready for the last stretch.
For those readers celebrating Christmas, it arrives whether we are ready or not.
I wish you all joy, regardless.
Merry Everything. I’ll be back when the gifts are all opened and there’s nothing left but crumbs. See you on the other side.
For more on ritual, see The Cult of Santa