‘Tis the season for gatherings and celebrations, and an onslaught of travelers are urgently trying to make their way home for the holidays. An innate urge seems to drive them back to their roots. And I wonder. What is it that draws people home for the holidays?
This existential question arose one year as I was lighting the menorah (candelabrum) on the first night of Chanukah. Friends and family were gathered at our family home to celebrate the holiday season once again. Their loving faces, which crossed generations, reminded me that for some it is Christmas, the birth of Christ — a time to spread peace and joy throughout the world. For others, it is the Jewish holiday of Chanukah — its message is one of rebuilding, rededication and freedom from oppression.
Suddenly I was overcome by a surreal experience in which the immediate sounds, sights and smells faded into the background. I am both participant and observer in this scenario and am filled with an overwhelming realization I am looking at the history of the years, the culture and religion of past centuries sitting at my table eating symbolic foods like potato latkes (pancakes), gefilte fish (stuffed fish) and sufganyiot (doughnuts). Not to minimize the historical or religious significance of such events, but it gave me pause to reflect on its importance in relation to one of our most basic human needs – a sense of belonging, as noted in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The rituals that accompany such occasions, regardless of whether it is Christmas, Chanukah or an Aboriginal PowWow, serve as a common bond that strengthens communal and family ties. It may or may not even have a religious focus but its significance should not be underestimated. While these occurrences appear to be but fleeting seconds in our lifetime they have a deep and long-lasting impact. It is our cultural and social heritage that carries us from the cradle to the grave and we learn these social ceremonies within the safety and security of the family.
The emotional attachments that are developed in the course of such activities are powerful, especially for a developing child. If you ask many adults who celebrate Christmas, for example, they will recall the occasion with fond memories. The nostalgia of twinkling, colorful lights, the smell of turkey roasting, the sounds of fun and laughter with family and friends and the excitement of exchanging gifts are hard to erase from anyone’s psyche. Even special foods like Christmas cake, potato latkes or bannock, which are interwoven with the particular celebration become a powerful emotional bond that ties us to one another, its strength consolidated with annual repetition.
And when we are adults we are bound to repeat them, not only for ourselves, but to give as a gift to our children and grandchildren. We want to provide them with the beautiful memories of childhood we enjoyed. Rituals are the glue that bind us together and link the past with the future. Those who have never had these experiences or lost them suffer a sense of painful loneliness at these times leading to a widespread myth that suicide rates increase over the holiday season.
Numerous studies indicate the exact opposite is true. For example, an analysis by The Annenberg Public Policy Center, which has been tracking media reports since 2000 in the U.S; found that 50% of articles written during 2009-2010 perpetuate this myth. Reported incidents of suicide are the lowest in December and has not changed in recent years.
And a Canadian article entitled, Holiday Depression by Michael Kerr, reviewed by Dr. George Krucik at Healthline.com, also dispels the myth of higher suicidal rates during the Christmas season. However, the season may trigger other kinds of psychopathology such as substance abuse or depression, which do increase.
Sadly, people may become aware that with the passing years, family and friends are now not always available. Children move away, people pass away and these celebrations can emphasize solitary feelings that are glaring in their stark contrast to the ‘Norman Rockwell’ happy family images portrayed all around.
But there are alternatives. Volunteer at a homeless shelter or deliver or pack Xmas hampers. Create a new tradition and invite a gathering of new friends and neighbours. Stay active. It can offer much to alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness.
While these philosophical meanderings ramble through my mind a sudden explosion of laughter jolts me back from my reverie to the here and now. I contemplate the people around me with warmth and appreciation and realize that the people sitting at my table are not so different from the people sitting at your table. Social formalities are found in all societies, religions and cultures and are strikingly similar. Though the focus of holidays may vary among multifarious groups, it serves to cement communities and families together.
As Barbra Streisand sings, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”