’Tis the season to be jolly, but also the season for which an affective disorder is named — the winter blues known by the acronym SAD. December is the month of living intensely, when feelings run high and low, and moods swing from hurt to happiness. The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is generally understood in terms of particular religious and cultural observances. But the meaning of what we call “the holidays” goes deeper than any one tradition, as we humans plunge more fully into what makes us human in the first place.
Indeed, in December time itself moves to the center of our awareness. Humans swim in the flow of past, present, and future, but unlike fish, we know what we are swimming in — especially during these waning days of the year. Whether noting the date with the number 12, or compiling records for the accountant, or rushing to meet a deadline, we see the calendar winding down. This year in America, the so-called “fiscal cliff” makes the ticking of that clock louder than usual, but the approach of year’s end is always laden.
Heavenly bodies are in constant motion, but now we notice; in our hemisphere, the shortest day of the year unmistakably approaches. The nights lengthen as the sun sinks to the lowest point in the sky.
Our prehistoric forebears found threat in this accumulation of frigid darkness, and countered it by seeking meaning in it. Consider Newgrange, the neolithic observatory in Ireland that fills with light as the sun rises at the time of the winter solstice, or the Mayan calendar, which abruptly ends when the sun falls to its southernmost point on the horizon. The astronomical phenomena make us stop and, often unconsciously, take notice — a stepping out of ordinary time that is reflected in something as common as the semester break.
If there is a certain sadness built into December, it comes from knowing that, in Virgil’s line, “There are tears in things, and all things doomed to die touch the heart.” Yet just as the solstice marks a beginning as much as an ending, so the very awareness of mortality is what heightens a love of life while it lasts. That is why the season, for all its gravity, rings with joy across eras and cultures. Ancient Rome had its late-December Saturnalia. It is telling that Hanukkah is a festival of lights. St. Lucy’s Day, Mummer’s Day, Kwanzaa, and the Yuletide of Germanic tribes — all of these are celebrations marked by lights, song, and feasting.
Christmas, of course, is the Christian adaptation, and has long been the pillar of Western mid-winter jubilee. But even in a culture so dominated by beliefs and myths attached to Jesus Christ, the sacredness of this time of year goes beyond any one religious expression. Complaints about the overly secular character of the season, or its commercialization, or even the so-called “Christmas wars,” in which the baby Jesus is wielded as a weapon — all of this misses the larger significance of December.
The point is that, even though humans take note of it in varying ways, the experience of the passage of time is universal. The feelings of transcendence it calls forth naturally involve religion for many; for many others, these same feelings imply a different kind of sacredness, one rooted in this world.
Indeed, the kind of reflection we make during the holidays is essential to practical political morality, the real-world resolution of mundane problems like, say, that fiscal cliff. December — especially one poised on the edge of such ruin — should sharpen our awareness that every person has the right to be fully alive here and now. That means, for instance, that the government’s urgent decisions about the economy must serve universal needs, not merely the needs of the few.
Yes, the the holidays bring to mind what matters most — family intimacy, expressions of love, resolutions to live more generously. And yes, the emotional weight of December can itself carry a message about the preciousness of life. But seasonal cheer is not enough. Attention to what makes us human must lead to the creation of the just society that alone protects it.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.