One of the first extended efforts in features writing I did on the way to journalism, many years ago, included an effort to describe the peculiar sensation of the holidays.
Across a lot of articles, I worked on issues around color and light; the seasonal commonality of a greeting (“happy holidays” as a unifying exchange phrase); and–inescapably–the magical realism of much of the scriptural literature, and of the “Christmas industry” that it has spawned, of course.
What was striking during all this–and I couldn’t let it filter into these pieces at the time–was the negative layer of disappointment that underlay so many aspects of all this.
The readings and interviews I was doing inevitably had something along the lines of, “Of course, that’s where the sadness always comes in.” Even among the happiest of yuletide Christian celebrants (and clergy) I encountered, there was a baked-in anticipation and expectation of a letdown. Many spoke without prompting of the “post-holiday blues.”
I found this frustrating. To me, the idea of life after the holidays being in various ways less cheerful was a given, and not where any emphasis was needed. There’s the return to work, the cold and darkness in many parts of the world, the quiet disappearance of the colorful light and trees.
But many years later, I’d find a short line that I think gets at what’s behind the cycle of emotional experience around the holidays. I’m adding the feminine to it because I hope its author would have wanted to do that if he were alive today.
Every man and woman regards his or her life as the New Year’s Eve of time.
Isn’t that a remarkable observation? Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, a writer in 18th-century Germany, was known as “Jean Paul.” He’d taken the name in honor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It’s said that he was too given to humor, satire, irony, and realism at times to be a full-blown Romantic. It’s also said that he was appreciated by women readers more than most authors of the era because he gave female characters a rare level of personality complexity.
His idea of how we think of our lives is exhilarating in the oddest way, and it relates, I’ve realized, to some of the literary work I respect the most. That’s where my provocation for you lies today. It has to do with what Writer Unboxed founder Therese Walsh has called “actionable epiphanies” in a comment below, a brilliant phrase I’ve updated this article here to include.