Are traditional holiday celebrations just too much of a good (or not-so-good) thing?
While some of us like our holiday traditions just the way they are, many other women face the start of the holiday season with trepidation or even dread.
According to the American Psychological Association, almost 50 percent of U.S. women face higher and potentially harmful levels of stress at holiday time. But it doesn’t have to be that way, say local women who believe it’s time to re-evaluate our relationship to traditional holidays and craft something new-something that more deeply meets our physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
Community and connection
Thanksgiving holds deep values for Luna McIntyre. “Reflective. Introspective. Taking stock in where you are. Time to celebrate the connection you have with friends and family. Getting together. Making a concerted effort to be kind to people,” she said, and added, “Good Food. Family Games. Pie. Fruits of the fall season.”
We all have our own ideas of what makes a great holiday and those ideas can change with each stage of our life. McIntyre said, “As a kid growing up in a commune, it was fun. We had a house full of people. You all sat around and had Christmas morning together. There was a huge pile of presents. You took your turn. It was great.”
She now lives with her mother. Her relatives are either on the East Coast or in London, so her holidays look different-more self-directed. “I still, in some respect long for that community and not being separate. Part of me longs for that ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ nonsense. It is there, and you kind of see it and you think that you want it but you really don’t,” she said.
It’s hard to get away from the romance of the holidays, and too easy for many women to stay home. Last Thanksgiving, McIntyre filled her longing for community and connection by attending an event with a friend. “It was a bunch of different people in a lovely house by a beautiful lake with mismatched chairs but a beautiful place setting. Everybody brought a dish,” she said. “It was just hanging out and communicating and having wonderful conversation and food. That is my favorite way to celebrate anything.”
McIntyre is open to invitations coming from her community, but the first Thanksgiving she was in Minneapolis, she cooked dinner for herself and her mom. “It was awesome. It came out really tasty. It was really fun. I didn’t do a traditional dinner, I made stuffing because I absolutely love stuffing but I made things that I just thought would be good.”
Local actor and college instructor Cheryl Moore Brinkley hosts Thanksgiving at her Twin Cities home and holds open her doors to her students who have no other place to go. “Our guests have been wonderful young people from various places in the U.S. as well as Guam, Pakistan, Jamaica, Romania and Argentina,” she said. “We are very thankful for the stories, warmth, culture, opinions and fun that they have brought to our table and we look forward to being enriched this way every year.” Many of the young people become returning guests, often bringing friends along to the next year’s celebration. The tradition began when Moore Brinkley and her husband, who is also an actor, lived in New York City. They were usually doing a show at Thanksgiving, and they began to invite the out-of-town actors and others to share their feast.
As Moore Brinkley begins her yearly feast in her Twin Cities home, she asks all of her guests to share words about the harvest festival in their own culture. “Most cultures have one. They share whatever they have done to celebrate the harvest in their home,” she said. Moore Brinkley has been hosting this event in Minnesota for the past six years. “Including strangers in the feast was like the original intent of the holiday: coming together and sharing food, bringing disparate cultures together. It makes family where there is none.
“I really think as Golda Meir did,” Moore Brinkley said. “If we sit down at the kitchen table and we come together over food and culture as human beings, that’s how we create peace on earth.”
Kari Tauring, who has designed rituals and other transformative experiences for most of her adult life, agreed with Moore Brinkley. “There is something so deeply rooted in our spiritual genetic code that says that when you bring food to share with people you are one with them,” she said.
When working with clients, she first asks questions she has spent years asking herself. “Look at the word ‘holiday’ and decide what it really means. Is it really a holy day? In our culture our holy days have been co-opted by marketers. Looking through our culture’s history, there were always harvest festivals in place of the now- standard Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now [the harvest festivals] have been taken over by Macy’s and Hallmark.”
Since 1999,Tauring created and produced a holiday event that drew in the greater community. As part of her “Discovering Origins/Building Traditions” project, she worked with her family and community to create an alternative performative event at the time of the Winter Solstice.
This project grew out of Tauring’s explorations after she left home. She started by studying earth-based religions. “I just felt like I needed to look at what our ancestors did and how I could connect with those traditions,” she said. Tauring grew into her own beliefs by exploring the beliefs of many cultures, and in doing that she was both embracing the old and experiencing the new.
McIntyre is following a similar path as she explores other faiths to see what resonates for her. “I’m in a growing up phase of my life. I’m not anywhere near being mature and being settled. I’m coming to terms with my past and not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” Her relocation to Minneapolis made an impact on her. “It is a different kind of community than I’ve had in a long time. Just being front and center at my job and people giving me such positive feedback about who I am. I have had nice, deeper connections with people here.”
And deeper connections are what many of us are looking for. Creating an event that holds history and magic can be one way to create community and celebration. But there are others. Tauring created her own Thanksgiving tradition. She packs up her family on the holiday weekend and heads for Grand Portage. “We stay at the casino. We walk in the woods. If you are really going to thank the Native people, you might as well spend your money at their establishments,” she said. For Tauring, it’s about personal choice: She moves past the pressure to have a perfect family holiday and instead creates what she really wants to experience.
The expectations of creating the perfect holiday can increase the holiday stress. According to Tauring, “Sometimes the idea of the perfect holiday is much more charming than it actually is. We are told, ‘Here’s how we celebrate.’ We follow what we are told and there is nothing underneath it. People wind up empty in both pocketbook and in their souls.”
Because the myth of perfection can leave us so empty, it is important to continue to hold celebrations, she said. “We have a tendency to hibernate and draw inward.” Because seasonal affective disorder is so prevalent in Minnesota, this is one way to soften the impact of the darkness on our spirits and bodies. “One of the things that you can do is gather in people’s homes for singing and eating,” Tauring said.
Everything old is new again
One of those community celebrations for Tauring occurs on Jan. 6 when she brings the tradition of wassailing to life. She and her family take their cider out to the orchard and sing wassailing songs. Tauring said, “The kids drink hot cider and cheer each other and cheer the trees and pour a little on the base of the tree.”
Wassailing has become a tradition for members of her south Minneapolis neighborhood, and it’s a celebration, she said, that can always be counted on. “It draws in the neighborhood kids. It is an old tradition that ties into the pagan and Christian roots. It has a significant meaning to us because we really do count on our trees for apples. It ties the nature piece in and it is a lot of fun!”
Women recreate the holiday
All three of these women are reclaiming the place of women as tradition makers. According to Tauring, “We’re the ones who sing to the babies and tell them the stories. We are the ones who pass the culture on. We are ourselves and as community responsible for each other’s mental health and well-being.”
“When the holidays are stripped of all the rites and spiritual content, what happens is that we raise dysfunctional children: a whole generation of people that have an inherited cultural grief,” Tauring said. “There is a piece that is missing and people try to fill it with shopping and eating and the guilt that goes with it. It is that piece of the holidays that is the shadow side of the strong core building holy days that they should be,” Tauring said.
Luna McIntyre shares a possible solution. “Our lives get really busy, and we get really involved in our nuclear families, and we have this opportunity to branch out and include people we love and know. Let’s just tone things down a bit. Slow down. Take stock. I look forward to possibly one day having my own family to explore alternatives with and that will be a whole other kettle of fish. I think kids need to be focused in ways other than, ‘What am I about to get?’ It is so hard. It is in the air, the ‘me, me, me, me. What’s for me? I’ve been good. So what’s for me?'” Strong women like McIntyre, Brinkley and Tauring are bringing the holy back into holiday by discovering and spending energy on what really matters and reflecting that into their world.