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KOUTOULAS: Finding meaning in the holidays

This is a repeat of the column that generated the most positive feedback to me personally from last year. This year, in many ways, the holidays will be celebrated much differently for most of us. But the message of this article remains: it is up to each of us to find our personal meaning in the holidays. 

I have a confession to make. I’m a lover of everything related to the Christmas season.

The music. The decorations. Time off from work. Shopping for and exchanging gifts. Family traditions. Food. Office parties. Holiday movies. Enhanced feelings of goodwill and joy toward others. Opportunities to volunteer and help the less fortunate.

The list goes on and on.

I know a lot of this is commercialized and kitschy. Much of it is vacuous. But I love it all. I can’t help it — I’m wired that way.

It’s gotten to the point where my wife has started calling me Clark Griswold, that character portrayed by Chevy Chase in the classic 1980s movie Christmas Vacation. I don’t really mind. I’ve always identified with Clark.

It seems the season has grown longer with each generation. My mother used to tell how, when she was a child in the post-WWII era, most folks put up a live tree on Christmas Eve. They would take it down a few days later, often well before New Year’s Day.

By the time I was a child, artificial trees were the norm, but we never put ours up before December 15. There would be a few decorations about the house, and maybe a string of lights around the front window. But that was the extent of our holiday decorating.

This past Sunday, November 17 — nearly two weeks before Thanksgiving — we put up most of our outdoor lights and decorations. Honestly, at first, I intended simply to take advantage of a sunny, temperate day to get the lights hung. I didn’t mean to do anything else or to illuminate the lights until Thanksgiving weekend, as usual.

But Saturday night, I had noticed several houses in our neighborhood which were already bathed in bright LED Christmas cheer. I couldn’t let them all get the jump on me.

My wife and I are now in the midst of our annual decorating project. A dozen or more totes full of things to be carried down from the attic. Lights to be strung along the eaves of the house and on every living thing in the front yard. The foyer and the mantle decked out in festive colors and themes.

We won’t put up the tree until after Thanksgiving. Still, everything else will be in place when we host our family for that holiday.

Then we’ll start with our annual movie traditions. Our favorites are the already-mentioned Christmas Vacation, along with It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, the Home Alone movies, and Miracle on 34th Street.

There is the genuine issue of holiday depression. Not everyone has a family to celebrate with. Some struggle with feelings of inadequacy due to the inability to buy gifts for friends and family. Others suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or other emotional disorders.

People often speak of the “true meaning of Christmas.” I understand how some Christians might feel that it’s wrong making it about anything but the birth of Jesus.

But I have always felt that “meaning” is a subjective concept. I don’t believe anything has inherent meaning; it’s a purely human construct. And each of us decides what meaning to attach to events and things.

Most of what we associate with the holiday season has no religious connection at all. Much of it dates back to pre-Christian Pagan practices. A lot of it is simply modern commercial exploitation.

And let us not forget that not everyone celebrates Christmas. Many other religious (and non-religious) traditions have other holidays around the time of the Winter Solstice.

But there are a few concepts and traditions that nearly everyone can agree on. Things that we all hold dear.

Things like peace, joy, and love. Spending time with beloved family and friends. Exchanging meaningful gifts or just sharing a phone call or visit.

Pausing to count one’s blessings — and spreading them to others. Sharing and caring.

That is my own personal meaning of the season. It’s for each of us to decide what meaning is contained in our celebrations.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Facebook at fb.me/PeteTheSun.