Don’t forget to be here and now during the holidays

Are the holidays worth it?

By this time in December many of us — especially women, I dare say — have asked this question. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or simply the winter solstice, the preparations can feel overwhelming. Decorating, shopping, wrapping gifts, planning family gatherings — at some point many of us wonder why we are doing this to ourselves. What is supposed to be a joyful time begins to feel like a burden.

If you’re traveling for the holidays, you may be anxious about driving or flying — and how the weather will affect them. If you’re hosting a gathering, you’re concerned with preparing the food and making your house look festive. And all of us, I think, worry about the conflicts that can arise when families get together and push each other’s buttons — whether intentionally or not. It’s too easy to stay stuck in the old “scripts” that defined childhood relationships and can be hard to shake off.

But there must be a reason we observe the holidays despite all the effort involved. Of course, Christians and Jews are celebrating what they believe to be historic events that define their culture: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and the miracle of lights in the Temple. Holidays remind us of our identity; even newer holidays like Kwanzaa, or non-religious observances like the winter solstice express who we are and what we believe. (Of course, Christmas has roots in the pre-Christian celebrations of Saturnalia and Yule as well.)

But holidays have a meaning beyond group identification. We as individuals, as families, can decide what holidays mean to us. Each family has its own spin on tradition: some cook a feast, some go out to eat. Some stay home to host loved ones; others travel. Your family’s rituals may be very different from mine. The point is that we all have rituals, whether ones that we share with a group or have created for ourselves.

Such rituals — whether going to church or synagogue or celebrating in the home — make these special days stand out. They remind us that we can create meaning for ourselves. We set these times apart in order not only to give shape to the year, but also to impose significance on a moment. A holiday allows us to stop time and reflect on the importance of the things time can’t change: family, love, cultural history.

We spend much time and effort preparing for a single day or week. But then we stop the clock and we reflect on all the Christmases and Hanukkahs that have come before this one. Time collapses as we decide to live fully in this moment we’ve anticipated, and that we’ve lived so many times before. Holidays remind us that the year may be a cycle, but that cycle centers around the here and now.

So go ahead with the preparations, grumble a little over all the work involved, but don’t neglect to grab those “now” moments — whether in front of your Christmas tree or menorah, or contemplating the stars on the longest nights of the year. Holidays are a way of taking a day and making it important, of seizing a fleeting moment and making it forever.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, may it be happy, safe and holy. The magic is in the moment and what you make of it.