Reclaiming Meaning in the Season of Stuff

The decorations started appearing during the lazy, hazy days of summer—glints of tinsel and multi-coloured lights, side-by-side with water toys and Halloween candy, a chilling reminder that “winter is coming,” and with it, The Holiday Season.

But isn’t it, “the most wonderful time of the year?”

Well, not for everyone. For many people it can be an incredibly stressful, triggering, and even grief-laden ordeal to be survived. Even those of us who don’t have any specific dark or sad association with The Holidays can find it anxiety-provoking to see our social schedules fill up and to-do lists grow. And, of course, this whole global pandemic situation isn’t helping stress levels!

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Over the years, I’ve felt myself grow cynical in the face of rampant consumerism and the artificially inflated expectations of this time of year. I know I didn’t always feel this way, and while my son was younger and experiencing many “firsts,” I reconnected with a sense of magic and wonder through his eyes. But now he’s reached an age where he’s focused on toys, toys, toys. I feel like any kind of meaning is slipping away, chased out by an avaricious Gimme Monster.

I can’t let that happen, so I’m digging deep this year, trying to reclaim some meaning (and hopefully, joy!) in the season that is fast-approaching, for myself as well as my son.

December and early January host important celebratory days for a number of religions. My family is not religiously affiliated, but there is still plenty to celebrate, and ways to help my son learn to embrace a sort of magic that brings even better gifts than Santa. This magic includes the tenacity of hope, new beginnings, connection with others, comfort during uncertain times, the pleasure of giving, and the nostalgic continuum of collective family memory.

Winter, as the literal (and often psychologically) darkest time of the year, actually heralds brighter days ahead—the return of the sun. Acknowledging the Winter Solstice always reminds me that, as dark as things might seem, better times will return, as surely as the sun rises and sets. Festooning our home with bright lights and colours both celebrates this and makes the dark days more bearable.

Several years ago we had a beach fire on the solstice. A lady walking by asked us if we were letting go of things to prepare for the new year. We were, in fact, introducing my son to the culinary brilliance of S’mores, but it sounded like a great idea. We each wrote down several feelings, circumstances, or ideas that we wanted to leave behind and threw them into the flames. It felt wonderful! A solstice beach fire this year is definitely in the cards.

Another thing I genuinely look forward to is decorating our tree. Not the putting-up-the-lights-part (gak!), but the annual reunion with our lovingly stowed-away ornaments and their attached nostalgia. Sharing these memories with my son passes on family culture and history, and also presents an opportunity to remember loved ones who have passed on. I eagerly anticipate the moment when he holds up one of the ornaments to which he has an attachment and says, “Mama, I remember….”

Decorating is one of many winter rituals in our home, undertaken in a similar way each year. There is something deliciously comforting about knowing what comes next, even for a short time. Other family rituals at this time include baking cookies, snowshoeing, reading certain stories, sharing yummy food, and watching favourite seasonal movies (Christmas Vacation, anyone?).

Engaging in these activities together triggers memories of happy times past and creates new memories for the ‘bank’ that we can draw from in years to come.

The holidays are known, and often disparaged, for their excess, especially at a time of year when those who struggle to get by are really struggling. I am so grateful for what we have and try to vocalize this often in front of my son. I want us to exercise the ethic of gratitude, and pair it with the spirit of giving.

I’m not sure exactly how it will look this year, but I think it’s important to include my son in the planning of how we can share some of our abundance. How we can give to others to help make their lives better in some way, even for a little while? I have a feeling that even considering this question together will be a powerful exercise, and I’m looking forward to hearing some of my son’s ideas.

In fact, after writing this, I find that I’m actually looking forward to the upcoming holiday season. After all, experiences are what we make of them.

Kelly McQuillan
Kelly McQuillan
Kelly McQuillan is a writer, musician, teacher, and fledgling mother living in Comox, BC.