As a child, I often felt disconnected and sad during the holiday season. We were the only non-Christian family in my school, and I felt separate from this collective celebration. The story of the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, as well, felt far removed from my family’s immigration story to the New World. And today at the Thanksgiving table, at least one person will criticize the holiday as a celebration of the white man’s brutal conquest over naively generous natives.
Yet over time, I have experienced something deeply universal that our wintertime celebrations tap into, be it Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, or Kwanza. In the dark, barren moments of winter, we are reminded that we are not alone, that we are part of something bigger: a community of others, family and strangers alike, who are there to care for us, and in turn who we are being asked to care for. I think it’s no coincidence that as the light outdoors grow dimmer outside, we have rituals and celebrations that call upon us to shine our lights from within even brighter.
Harsh environments and shocks can separate us, or bring us together. Cultures in harsher environments evolve to be more collectivist and care for one another more (think: Scandinavia). A recent study found that natural disasters also bring communities closer together (think: Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11). When life gets tough, we have the choice of hoarding and competing for scarce resource, or cooperating with our neighbors, our communities, those beyond our own household walls. The invitation of this time of year is: tap into that inner light, come together and give.
I now find inspiration for this in the stories of Thanksgiving and Christmas. For me, Thanksgiving is about a group of settlers who arrived in a foreign land, asked for help, and their ask was granted. Despite cultural differences, at the onset of winter’s harshness, these two tribes shared a meal of peace (as well as a formal peace treaty). At times in life, we are the natives: with scarce knowledge and resources to share; other times, we are the new arrivals, who need to humble ourselves to ask for help. The story also reminds me that we living in America today have much to pay forward: we too can help the immigrants who land on our doorstep (sometimes uninvited), or the global neighbor in need beyond our own borders. Yes, Thanksgiving brings our families together, but as I see it, it is as much about looking beyond our families to the stranger in need, or the stranger we may need to ask for help, outside of our household walls. It is a reminder of our interdependence.
The story of Christmas is filled with similar metaphors, calling upon us to help and care for others. Jesus’ birth took place in the stables of a stranger. And the stories that most inspire me about Jesus were his actions of kindness and compassion towards society’s outcasts.
Nowadays, if we are lucky, Christmas and Thanksgiving coordinate a meal with our busy and scattered family members. This year, I would like to invite you to look beyond the gift giving, and even your immediate family. In the darkness of the winter solstice, there is an invitation to be a brighter light into the world to the perfect stranger, to the outcast, to those seeking refuge, to those to whom we normally don’t show compassion. When nature is at her harshest, there is all to the more need for us to be at our gentlest. This call to shine a bit brighter transcends any religion or ritual [and certainly bargain basement sale] this time of year. It’s embedded not only in our stories and traditions, but more fundamentally in the seasons themselves.
Wishing you, those you love, and those you will never meet much brightness this season.