BY MATIAS SUR
The holidays start with Thanksgiving, so let’s begin there. Here’s how Thanksgiving Day looks to me:
We eat the delicious turkey, sides, and stuffing that accompanies one of the year’s most extraordinary meals. Then, people play board games with their families, spend time watching football or the National Dog Show on NBC, and maybe even go back to the kitchen and eat some more. There will be someone making at least one comment about how bad they feel because they have eaten so much, leading to post-Thanksgiving resolutions to get in shape and work out more. Then it’s back to watching TV or playing more board games. On Thanksgiving Day, Americans wind down, relax, and enjoy quality time and good food with their families.
It’s safe to say then, that Thanksgiving Day is a day of rest. What a great start to the holidays and the season of Advent! But what does the term “holiday” actually mean? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “holiday” has two definitions:
- “A day on which one is exempt from work”
- “A day marked by a general suspension of work in commemoration of an event”
The first definition emphasizes an individual’s personal exemption from work, while the second definition emphasizes the collective exemption from work. Curiously enough, the second definition gives an extra push to the first definition. Work is exempted for a specific reason, and so, it is substituted in order to commemorate something. In this manner, it’s easy to recall holidays where individuals are exempted from work to commemorate an event: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Day, etc. In both definitions, work is the primary factor determining whether or not a day is a holiday.
Thanksgiving Day and the opening weekend of the holidays, therefore, should awaken a certain duty towards rest. In reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
The opening weekend of the holidays is the longest weekend of the year. I say this because the weekend does not end on Sunday, but rather on Tuesday: a five-day ordeal starting with Black Friday and ending with Giving Tuesday. Rather than encouraging rest, the first Friday of the holidays erupts into a massive spending spree because of the discounts extending into Saturday and Sunday. The Monday after Thanksgiving, christened as “Cyber Monday,” incentivizes more shopping and consumerism. Then, after the restless shopping, the weekend ends with Giving Tuesday.
From Black Friday to Giving Tuesday, the kick-off to the holidays accomplishes quite the opposite of what the holidays are meant to do: a time to rest and exempt ourselves from work because of a special event. What is that special event? Well, Christmas Day, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Quite specifically, the Church prepares for this moment starting from the fourth Sunday of November to Christmas Day. This period, which marks part of the liturgical calendar, is called “Advent,” meaning “the arrival.” To prepare for the birth of Christ, Christians often make certain resolutions, including more time for daily prayer, readings of Holy Scripture, and other acts of piety.
In other words, their preparation for Christmas Day involves a voluntary decision to set time aside to rest with God. To have silence and exempt one’s self from the duties of daily life in order to commemorate the coming arrival of Christ. Viewed through this Christian lens, the term “holidays” is a perfect manifestation of these actions. Without proper rest and silence, the term “holidays” becomes a misnomer. Indeed, the mass consumerism that dominates the opening weekend of the holidays prevents individuals from fulfilling the true purpose of this season. Rather than exempting people from work in order to commemorate a special event, the holidays now prevent people from resting. The priorities have been reversed, with restful activities replaced by a litany of “to-do’s.” At times when we are “off the clock,” we continue to be “on the clock” without ever punching in.
But I don’t blame those who do not or who cannot find rest.
The reason is:
It’s too loud. There is too much going on. There’s the shopping that needs to get done, the traveling that needs to be made, the home decorations and preparations, the cleaning, and the final wrap-up (haha get it) of the year. Generally, these are exciting times, full of anticipation, happiness, warmth, and comfort. However, the excitement, anticipation, happiness, warmth, and comfort have drowned out the very rest and silence that is required for this time period to truly be called the “holidays.”
The noise is not coming from the endless Christmas music playing on the radio and on stores’ intercoms. Instead, the noise comes from the hustle and bustle of our everyday actions—and from the restlessness of our own hearts. As St. Augustine states in the oft-quoted passage from his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O Lord.”
Of course, I’m not saying that all those actions—the shopping, traveling, decorating, etc.—need to be neglected. Rather, we must approach those activities with an interior life. With a reverent silence and with hearts that rest in the Lord. With peace in our hearts and with bountiful hope. We must treat those small actions—gift-wrapping, dinner preparations, wrapping presents, and shopping—as outpourings of our love for God. Each of those actions can convey our love for God, our hope, and our peace. If we don’t approach the season in this way, the external noise will eventually drown out the silence necessary to truly rest and enjoy the holidays.
If we don’t guard ourselves against the cacophony of the holidays, it will be impossible for us to experience the true Christmas spirit, becoming lost instead in mere consumerism. Take, for example, the opening weekend of the holidays I’ve already described. Throughout the weekend, as copious amounts of Thanksgiving food digests in peoples’ stomachs, malls and stores are devoured by the same people looking for that new television set, new shoes, new shirts, and other fancy merchandise. Stores set up Christmas decorations, and their intercoms play famous Christmas jingles, whether it’s Mariah Carey or a hymn. The frenetic consumerism of this weekend demonstrates our culture’s attachment to worldly things, and this is ultimately why we try to “escape” from work into the pleasant experience of frantic shopping. Indeed, a horrendous pandemic hasn’t reduced the shopping—it’s merely moved it online. People now stay at home and order from Amazon or other websites, waiting for their products to come straight to their door. These websites are “decorated” with Christmas-themed layouts so that the visitor can “feel” the Christmas spirit.
But what exactly is the Christmas spirit? Rather than waiting the two days for Prime delivery to drop gifts at our front door, are we not supposed to be waiting for another, more important arrival? With the advent of new technology, are we not forgetting the true Advent? Rather than looking at the twinkling of shiny gifts in stores and on Amazon, should we not be looking at the twinkling Star in the Heavens on Christmas night? Rather than stuffing ourselves and our own homes with even more goods than we already have, should we not be helping to fill the homes of those who need more than we do?
One thing is certain. The Christmas spirit is not about me and what I get. Rather, it’s about what I give. It is about being, and not about doing. It is about being present, and not merely about buying presents. The Christmas spirit means recognizing that each person is a gift from God, and because we are gifts, we are called to give ourselves to others.
For this reason, this season is the perfect time to give of our time and of our presence to others. This is why these days matter so much. They are holy because we are in the season of Advent. These days, we await the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. For this reason, a silent and reverent disposition is what all of us—Christian or not—ought to embody. Only then can we truly live in the “Christmas spirit” and be present in this season of Holy Days.
With the few days that remain until Christmas Day, we must take time to drown out the noise of life with an interior silence, preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord. Only then, can we bring back the spirit of the “Holy Days” to the “holidays.”