I approach the holiday season with apprehension; it conjures up memories from my youth of disunity, abandonment and what seems like intractable melancholy and disappointment. King Solomon in the book of Proverbs, which is in the Ketuvim of the Hebrew Bible, states that “hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and merely writing these sentiments produces a visceral feeling of a sick, empty heart.
These melancholic holiday emotions are punctuated, of course, by memories of contentedness and warmth that seem to slowly fade from my memory year-by-year. As these memories slowly fade like a print photo from years past, the angst from the present inevitably shapes the historicity of my past. Marcel Proust even notes of this phenomenon in his In Search of Lost Time when he states that the “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
While the historical veracity of my memories are no doubt subject to question, these fading yet powerful images of the past influence my desire to be alone during the holiday season. Although I find difficulty in experiencing what seems, at times, the illusions of joy, love and unity that accompany the banalities of existence, I discovered during my time in seminary a rekindled interest in this time of the year.
From mythic narratives of Messianic origin to political narratives of Maccabean revolts and African diaspora, the holiday season is a time of year that necessarily requires imaginative or magical thinking. Communities tend to form around central themes, ranging from shared metaphysical and religious views (Christmas in the Christian narrative or Chanukah in the Jewish tradition) to shared geography and history (in the case of Kwanza). The significance of the holiday season is that it creates temporary subjunctive universes that allow for transient moments of togetherness that might not otherwise occur.
I learned about the importance of subjunctive universes while taking a graduate course at Boston University with a Jewish sociologist, Adam Seligman. Professor Seligman told our class that the creation of an ‘as if’ as opposed to ‘as is’ universe fundamentally changes human interaction. An ‘as is’ universe orders the world through shared meaning, while an ‘as if’, or a ‘could be,’ universe creates a world that is unified by shared experience.
A subjunctive universe is just one of many possible — perhaps, conceivable — worlds. The requirement and performance of ritual is essential in the creation of these worlds, and it creates a tension between “the way things are” and “the way things ought to be.” While many of us in the 21st century cringe when reading the word ritual (we even cringe with the word Christmas), I find certain aspects of anthropologist Roy Rappaport’s definition of the word in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity to be somewhat helpful when thinking of the holiday season. Ritual is:
“the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers logically entails the establishment of convention, the sealing of social contract… the construction of time and eternity; the representation of a paradigm of creation… the evocation of numinous experience… and the construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic.”
The most important aspect of Rappaport’s definition of ritual in our context relates to the constructive dimensions of ritual, or the holiday season. Ritual demarcates, or frames, the world when it is performed. Performing ritual engages the relational aspects of the self and of other through action. And the performance of these actions, indeed the performance of the holiday season, creates boundaries, or ‘frames of actions,’ that allow for the movement between bounded worlds. In the creation and the crossing of boundaries, we can share experiences with others that are not bound by a shared meaning, such as those narrated in various religious traditions.
By not relying on a shared meaning, I can co-create a temporary subjunctive universe during the holiday season. Professor Seligman once told our class that performing one’s religion is perhaps more important than believing the central tenets of the religion. Why? Because the essence of religion is the correct practice of certain rituals. For me this signifies that the activities of the holiday season are the essence of the holiday season.
The practice of ritual, the activities of the holiday season, create a shared ‘could be,’ or a mutual illusion, that ultimately constitutes society. And sharing mutual illusions allows for “the projection of a shared future through stories of a common past. A community of fate shared a past and is thus destined to share a future as well.”
A few years ago around this time of year, I sat around the dinner table at an ecumenical retreat center in Boston sharing a meal on a snowy day with people from all walks of life. From seminarians, law student, and social work students to Christians, Buddhists and atheists, most of us without family during the holiday season, we ate a wonderful dinner and shared laughs throughout the night. Regardless of our various backgrounds, which included those of us who do not find any particular meaning in these holidays, we nevertheless partook in the rituals of the holiday season and shared an experience of togetherness on that December 25.
Although hope deferred makes the heart sick, King Solomon reminds the reader that “a longing fulfilled is the tree of life”. Partaking in the rituals of the holiday seasons creates shared experiences and stories of a common past. Although I still approach the holiday season with ambivalence and melancholy, I will try once again to partake in the ritual activities of the season in an attempt to be part of an ‘as if,’ ‘could be’ universe. A ‘could be’ universe that is filled with unforeseen potential with others who I am destined, and perhaps even desire, to share a future with.
I dream with unconquerable hope, perhaps even longing, that somehow this year I will allow myself to experience transient feelings of joy, love and unity with others in a subjunctive universe that creates moments that I believe are more real than mere mutual illusion.