(photo from oliveandwild.com/collections/judaic)
It is the season for gatherings and celebrations, and many 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 on the first night of Chanukah. Friends and family were gathered at our home to celebrate the holiday season once again. The loving faces, which crossed generations, reminded me that, for some, it is Christmas, a time to spread peace and joy throughout the world. For others, it is Chanukah, with its message of rebuilding, rededication and freedom from oppression.
Suddenly, I had 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 that 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, gefilte fish and sufganiyot. It gave me pause to reflect on one of our most basic human needs – a sense of belonging.
The rituals that accompany such special occasions, regardless of whether it is Christmas, Chanukah or a powwow, serve to strengthen communal and family ties. There may or may not even be a religious focus but their significance should not be underestimated, as 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 the colourful 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 one’s psyche. Special foods like Christmas cake, latkes or bannock, which are interwoven with the particular celebration, help form 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 to our children and grandchildren. We want to provide them with the beautiful memories of childhood we enjoyed. Rituals link the past with the future. Those who have never had these experiences, or have lost them, suffer a sense of painful loneliness at these times, leading to a widespread myth that suicide rates increase over the winter holiday season.
Numerous studies indicate the opposite. For example, an analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Centre, which has been tracking media reports since 2000 in the United States, found that half of the articles written during 2009-2010 perpetuated this myth. However, reported incidents of suicide are the lowest in December and this has not changed in recent years, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. A Canadian article, Holiday Depression by Michael Kerr, which can be found at healthline.com, also dispels the myth of higher suicide rates during the holiday season. However, it may trigger other issues, such as substance abuse or depression, which do increase.
Sadly, people may become aware that, with the passing years, family and friends are no longer always available. Children move away, people pass away and these celebrations can emphasize solitary feelings that are glaring in their stark contrast to the happy family images portrayed all around. But there are remedies for loneliness. Volunteer at a homeless shelter or see what your local synagogue has on offer. Create a new tradition and invite over new friends and neighbours. Stay active. It can offer much to alleviate feelings of isolation.
While these philosophical meanderings ramble through my mind, an explosion of laughter jolts me back from my reverie. I contemplate the people around me with warmth and appreciation. The people sitting at my table are not so different from those sitting at yours. Social formalities are found in all societies, religions and cultures, and are strikingly similar. Though the focus of holidays varies, they cement communities and families together. As Barbra Streisand sings, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”
Libby Simon, MSW, worked in child welfare services prior to joining the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg as a school social worker and parent educator for 20 years. Also a freelance writer, her writing has appeared in Canada, the United States and internationally, in such outlets as Canadian Living, CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, PsychCentral, and for Cardus, a Canadian research and educational public policy think tank.