Happy New Year!
I know we donâ€™t know each other, so maybe that came across as a bit shallow, but what is a society if not the reflex regurgitation of scripted, unfelt niceties? Because whatâ€™s the alternative, really? Take away the surface pretense of civility and good feeling and what do you have? You have France. Sure, you get to be sullen and dreary and â€œreal,â€ but you also get crushing existential angst, ponderous black-and-white movies about death, Germanophobia and compulsory smoking laws. Nothing will eat up your day faster than actually considering how you feel about your fellow man. Iâ€™m an American. Iâ€™m chipper because I have things to do.
I have slightly less to do now that the holidays have passed. Unlike previous years where Iâ€™ve spent my post-Christmas season lost in a combination of elastic-waist pants and self-loathing, Iâ€™m trying to be more positive. Iâ€™m taking the calendar freedom between now and the whirling insanity that is Presidents Day to reflect on the festive season by asking myself some serious questions, like: what does Christmas actually mean? Have I succumbed to the temptations of commercialization and acquisitiveness? What must the holiday look like to those who donâ€™t celebrate it? Did I really eat an entire tin of Danish butter cookies?
With the exception of the last one, the questions were inspired by the novel experience I had this year of experiencing the holidays in the company of my Jewish girlfriend. I was astonished and embarrassed to find that, for all my self-congratulatory liberality and open-mindedness, Iâ€™d thus far lacked the imagination to really consider my own cultural assumptions. Nothing quite stops you in your tracks like someone, with genuine curiosity, simply asking Why? Sometimes a combination of conventional wisdom, family lore and Wikipedia are enough to cobble together a satisfactory response to, say, why Iâ€™ve decided to dress up a captive pine tree like an Amsterdam prostitute just so I can watch it slowly die in my living room. Other questions, like say mincemeat pie, simply defy the human capacity to explain.
Iâ€™m happy to say the flow of information went in both directions. I learned on my own about how deeply Christian America is as a country. Culturally I mean, not necessarily religiously. We can say thereâ€™s room for everyone, but sometimes it requires an actual effort to make that space a tangible thing. And from her I learned that Hanukkah is not the Jewish celebration of the birth of Jesus. In fact, I checked their whole holiday schedule and almost none of them have anything to do with Jesus at all. The only one Iâ€™m not sure about is Passover. It happens right around Easter, so thereâ€™s bound to be some overlap. It only makes sense.
Iâ€™ve learned a lot and, in this period of new year reflection, Iâ€™m learning more. Not just seeking answers but, stripped of some of my unthinking cultural arrogance, how to ask the right questions. Like: not if, but why I ate an entire tin of Danish butter cookies. I knew it wasnâ€™t a good idea. And I canâ€™t actually like them that much. Nobody does. You think you do, but let me ask you: have you ever seen anyone eat a Danish butter cookie out of a tin in July? Like hell you have. If we really cared for them, thereâ€™d be a year-round market is all Iâ€™m saying.
And see, writing that last paragraph just took 45 minutes out of my life. Iâ€™m reconsidering my whole New Year approach. It kind of proves my point about the French: nothing productive ever comes from thinking.