The holidays can be complicated. Perhaps there is too much to do, purchase, cook, bake, eat, drink, decorate, wrap or prepare. Perhaps you’d rather do very few or even none of those things, yet opting out of the cultural whirl feels awkward and isolating when there are no satisfying substitutes. Perhaps you would like to participate but it’s painful to attend or host gatherings without a beloved partner or group of friends when other people seem to be surrounded by loved ones. The time period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s has often been a tricky if not dispiriting one for me. When I was younger, and firmly attached to my Jewish identity, I held myself apart from the secular celebrations, believing I shouldn’t join in because that would be disrespectful of my religion and disloyal to my many relatives who perished in the Holocaust. It’s as if I had drawn a line between me and the culture to preserve my Jewish soul and sense of self. Greater assimilation seemed out of the question, yet I still choked on enormous envy at those who baked holiday cookies and cakes, unpacked ornaments and decorated trees, and purchased and received umpteen gifts at Christmas. It’s as if the rest of the world was engaged in some joyful, orgasmic burst of commerce, sugar and color which I observed as if staring through an invisible yet still impenetrable wall. I also found it slightly strange, if not suspicious, that everyone else had decided to be cheerful at once…could that be true? Or were people excited about the cultural permission to be excited? Collective expressions of joy, whether genuine or manufactured, might as well have been a foreign country. While others counted down to Christmas with their cheery advent calendars, I bunkered in and carefully counted the days until we’d be graced with just a few more minutes of light and life would return to normal.
I still breathe a sigh of relief when the days lengthen and the calendar changes. Now, however, I try to see the holiday season as a weather-like phenomenon increasingly driven more by commerce than devout faith or deep kinship, the original reasons people gathered during the darkest time of the year. Like a man-made monsoon, this phenomenon reaches peak frenzy in December before withdrawing in early January, leaving felled pine trees, wreaths and glittery bows in its wake. A few years ago I went to Budapest towards the end of the year to escape America’s holiday madness and nonstop Xmas muzak, only to discover that Hungarians had pulled out all the stops, perhaps outdoing America! Craft markets and open air food stalls sprawled across many of the beautiful public squares, making it almost impossible to avoid Christmas kitsch. Rather than decry that large parts of the city had become an open air mall, I chose to surrender to this seasonal weather pattern and marvel at the seemingly endless ways Hungarians expressed the holiday spirit.
This impromptu Feldenkrais guide for the holidays boils down to choice. To choose how (and with whom) to spend the holidays means knowing yourself and your idiosyncrasies, preferences and limitations and not succumbing to peer, family or social pressure, or indulging in all-or-nothing thinking, shopping, compulsive eating or drinking. Often less is more. Moshe Feldenkrais said that the point of his work is “to remove outside authority from one’s inner life”. That removal is not accomplished in one go, like a surgeon extracting a growth. One first has to become aware of these outside authorities and what they are saying, and then discern whether one agrees with them or not. It can take time to make those distinctions and find one’s authentic response to a given situation.
In the United States, there is a common belief, or cultural authority, that everyone should celebrate Thanksgiving, a major national holiday with a feast as focus. Because of that belief, many organizations generously serve turkey dinners to the needy and the socially marginalized. To not celebrate is practically un-American. I had received an invitation to a potluck “Friendsgiving” from a woman I’ve met a few times and had dinner with once. It sounded good in theory, and I told her I’d get back to her. As a highly sensitive person, I have learned to slowly sense my way into social situations rather than accept invitations on the spot. As the date approached, I learned that there would be far more people than on the original guest list. As a highly sensitive person with a strong physiological response to stimuli, I don’t actually enjoy meeting and interacting with lots of new people at once, whether it’s a holiday or not. More is not always merrier, at least for me, because of the chance I’ll become overstimulated and feel physically uncomfortable. Unless I have spent a lot of time preparing myself (and have an exit strategy), group socializing often drains my energy and doesn’t feel satisfying or meaningful. I prefer intimate gatherings or, barring that, celebrations in larger spaces where I can move around or step outside for fresh air when I need to reset myself. The Thanksgiving venue did not offer the possibility of easy movement. With a mixture of sadness and relief, and also gratitude for the invitation, I decided not to go. I reassured the hostess that my decision was not personal. She understood. Instead, I went for a walk in the woods.
For the rest of the month, I have a few events on the calendar that I would like to attend, in circumstances that will allow me to leave if I choose. I will also dip into other festivities much in the way I experienced a monsoon in Thailand many years ago, when I stood outside as water poured from the skies, to feel the sensation and be part of nature. When the weather gets intense, a little can go a long way.
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