Finding meaning in the holidays

Published on Winchester Sun, November 21, 2019

I have a confession to make. I love everything related to the Christmas season: The music. The decorations. Time off from work. Shopping for and exchanging gifts. Family traditions. Food. Office parties. Holiday movies. Enhanced feelings of goodwill and joy toward others. Opportunities to volunteer and help the less fortunate.

The list goes on and on.

I know a lot of this is commercialized and kitschy. Much of it is vacuous. But I love it all. I can’t help it — I’m wired that way.

It’s gotten to the point where my wife has started calling me Clark Griswold, that character portrayed by Chevy Chase in the classic 1980s movie “Christmas Vacation.” I don’t really mind. I’ve always identified with Clark.

It seems the season has grown longer with each generation. My mother used to tell how, when she was a child in the post-World War II era, most folks put up a live tree on Christmas Eve. They would take it down a few days later, often well before New Year’s Day.

By the time I was a child, artificial trees were the norm, but we never put ours up before Dec. 15.

There would be a few decorations about the house, and maybe a string of lights around the front window. But that was the extent of our holiday decorating.

This past Sunday — nearly two weeks before Thanksgiving — we put up most of our outdoor lights and decorations. Honestly, at first, I intended to take advantage of a sunny, temperate day to get the lights hung. I didn’t mean to do anything else or to illuminate the lights until Thanksgiving weekend, as usual.

Saturday night, I noticed several houses in our neighborhood already bathed in bright LED Christmas cheer. I couldn’t let them all get the jump on me.

My wife and I are now in the midst of our annual decorating project. A dozen or more totes full of things to be carried down from the attic. Lights to be strung along the eaves of the house and on every living thing in the front yard. The foyer and the mantle decked out in festive colors and themes.

We won’t put up the tree until after Thanksgiving. Still, everything else will be in place when we host our family for that holiday.

Then we’ll start with our annual movie traditions. Our favorites are the already-mentioned “Christmas Vacation,” along with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A “Christmas Story,” the “Home Alone” movies and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

There is the genuine issue of holiday depression. Not everyone has a family to celebrate with. Some struggle with feelings of inadequacy because of the inability to buy gifts for friends and family. Others suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or other emotional disorders.

People speak often of the “true meaning of Christmas.” I understand how some Christians might feel it’s wrong making it about anything but the birth of Jesus.

But I have always felt “meaning” is a subjective concept. I don’t believe anything has inherent meaning; it’s a purely human construct. Each of us decides what meaning to attach to events and things.

Most of what we associate with the holiday season has no religious connection at all. Much of it dates back to pre-Christian Pagan practices. A lot of it is simply modern commercial exploitation.

Let us not forget that not everyone celebrates Christmas. Many other religious (and non-religious) traditions have other holidays around the time of the Winter Solstice.

But there are a few concepts and traditions nearly everyone can agree on. Things we all hold dear.

Things like peace, joy and love. Spending time with beloved family and friends. Exchanging meaningful gifts or just sharing a phone call or visit.

Pausing to count one’s blessings — and spreading them to others. Sharing and caring.

That is my personal meaning of the season.

It’s for each of us to decide what meaning is contained in our celebrations.

However you choose to celebrate this season, I wish for you and yours best wishes for the holidays and for the coming year. May you find peace.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Twitter @PeteKoutoulas.

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