Havoc For the Holidays

Unitarian Universalist Meeting House

November 25, 2018

Well, we’re into it now. 2018's version of the Great American Holiday Marathon. Thanksgiving is in the rear view mirror, thankfully. Ahead are Hanukkah, Santa Lucia, Christmas, Kwanzaa, St. Stephens Day, New Years, and Twelfth Night. Ahead for many of us are shopping, shopping, shopping, making of lists, checking them twice, cooking, throwing events, attending events, rehearsing for events, listening to music we only listen to once a year, trying to find that indefinable holiday spirit, and maybe a few quiet moments when we can reflect on the future and the past and deep deep questions of family and home. The questions of the Magi: where have we come from, where are we going, what is our tribe?

Many of us around this time of year experience sadness, anxiety, guilt, loneliness amidst the relentless cheer we hear blaring from every speaker in every store. The darkness and cold carry a certain gloom, though we fight back by festooning our houses and our shrubbery with candles and twinkling light displays. This being America, whole neighborhoods get into the act of trying to out-glow each other, and one of the great entertainments of the season is driving around trying to find the most over-the-top light display.

Thanksgiving weekend starts it all, and I titled this sermon Havoc For the Holidays, because in a typical year, Thanksgiving is the time when the most of us decide we need to be somewhere else, and all those people move at once, creating havoc on the highways, train and bus stations and airports. Then the day after Thanksgiving, that havoc is recreated at the malls and department stores, where the civility and momentary peace which may have prevailed around the family dinner table gives way to the war of all against all and American greed is revealed in all its venality. As captured in the poem I read a moment ago.

Surprise, surprise, this year, if my little experience is any gauge, the amount of havoc is less, not more, than the prior year. On Thursday, I ran and walked the Turkey Trot here in Chatham with a couple of thousand of my closest friends. That was a very controlled and congenial havoc. Then I set out for Boston, leaving enough time to be stuck in traffic, and lo and behold, I got there early!

Jacqueline and I had planned to have a visit with my cousin in Newton before dinner at Jacqueline’s sisters in Arlington, and I had enough time to pick her up at Harvard square and go back to Newton. Traffic on all roads was moving nicely.

Wednesday, I had put a quote on the sandwich board outside from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who was describing a typical afternoon tea but might well have been describing Thanksgiving dinner: “Gibble, gabble, gobble, git.” And that’s how our Thursday went, in two locations, and probably that’s how a lot of yours went.

Traffic was moving, and Black Friday sales at the brick and mortar stores were off a little from 2017, though the economy is stronger this year than last.

The New York Times had an op-ed column Saturday morning about the shape of time. How do you draw a picture of time? Many of us think of a line, such as the time-lines we see in history articles, with the earliest time on the left and the latest on the right. We know, or think we know, that time only moves in one direction. The line implies progress, and sometimes it is drawn rising as it goes from left to right. But do we really progress? Sometimes it seems we have put a battle behind us only to have it come up again.

We do find a good deal of repetition in our experience and so we sometimes revert to a circle to show time. Cyclical time was the world view of many ancient peoples. They ran their lives by the cycles of the day, the tides, the moon, the seasons, the year.

But each time we come around the circle, we are a little bit changed. So we can also see time as a spiral: you’re cycling around and you come back to the same side of the figure which you have been on before, but you have moved along a different dimension so you don’t come exactly back.

That’s what happens with holidays. You come back around every year, Thanksgiving, Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year. Each holiday has a lot of the trappings of the same holiday in past years, yet in each year it’s different. There are elements which are more or less the same, and there are elements which change. Is this true for you?

Holidays hit us on the sensory level. The day before Thanksgiving, I had remembered a taste from Thanksgivings of my childhood, of pecans roasted and salted. There were bowls of them all around the house at holiday gatherings when I was growing up. I hadn’t had them in years. I remembered particularly how their sharp nuttiness complemented the bourbon we used to drink in those days.

That bourbon is long behind me, but I suddenly got the notion to recreate the pecans of my youth and so I had stopped at Ring Brothers Wednesday, and with a 10 minute warmup in my sister-in law’s toaster oven Thursday, I brought that pecan taste and it opened a door in my brain on the other side of which was a little sensory bridge across the decades. I was in the present chatting with my in-laws, but I was also in my parent’s house in the 1960s just home from college.

But that little pint container of pecans would never have made it to Carol’s house if I had run into a traffic jam. I would have gobbled them up on the way.

What gives? Why were the roads so clear? Is everybody staying put this Thanksgiving and ordering out Chinese?

Actually, we didn’t do that at my in-laws, but they did buy a whole turkey from Whole Foods already coked, so we could just warm it in the oven without the anxiety of the meat thermometer. It was very tasty.

Some people may want to read into this fact a ruination of Thanksgiving, an erosion of that four or five hour cooking ritual. I just see it as evolution, new ways to feed old appetites. Several years ago, my brother-in-law in Georgia experimented with deep-frying the whole turkey, and it was delicious. Different, but delicious.

Here’s the thing: we all go a little crazy at the holidays. We cycle around the spiral and come back to a similar place we were in last year, yet we’ve moved along. It’s different.

When we have a repetitious experience, it both affirms the authenticity of the present and its difference form the past. One of my favorite expressions of this idea is in J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher In the Rye, where the precocious teenager Holden Caulfield is recalling his school class visits to the Museum of Natural History in New York:

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that, exactly. You'd just be different, that's all. You'd have an overcoat this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you'd have a new partner. Or you'd have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you'd heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you'd just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you'd be different in some way—I can't explain what I mean. And even if I could, I'm not sure I'd feel like it.”

What’s different about this year? Well, we’re obviously a year older than we were last year, and that in itself has all kinds of ramifications. Some of our dearest people are no longer with us, in this congregation as well as in our individual families. Many question marks hang over our future.

And as a nation, we are living in times unlike any I have experienced in my seventy years on this earth.

I heard a good talk Friday night from Sophie McLennan, Jamie’s niece, one of my favorite intellectuals; she is a professor of media studies; her subject was lying and fake news and alternate facts, and she pointed out that just trying to sort through a steady diet of lies takes a toll on the brain. It is exhausting. To check out someone’s assertion, say the first story the Saudis put out as to Jamal Kashoggi’s death, you first have to understand it, so your mind must provisionally accept it as true. When you then have done your research and proven to your satisfaction that it is false, there is still a little tension in your brain because you first held it in the true category.

Trying to sift truth from falsehood in one subject area, say, climate change, is tiring. But we have fake news coming at us 24 hours, 7 days from all directions: immigrants massing on the border, family separations, the ballooning deficit, paying respect to World War One veterans, election recounts, Israel and Palestine, the war in Yemen, sanctions on Iran, independence of the judiciary, the Mueller investigation etc. etc.

So just trying to absorb and keep up with what’s going on in the world, our brains are fighting multi-front wars all the time.

Now we tend to process this fake news with like-minded friends online as well as in real life. But there is a risk if we choose someone with whom to process it who disagrees with us.

On the one hand, we may be spurred by this disagreement to take a second look at our assessment of the original truth or falsity of the matter. That is what liberal theory would want to happen: the challenge to our assessment causes us to dig deeper and maybe come up with a more refined and accurate opinion; it maximizes the possibility that what we have reached is truth.

But what can also happen in these situations is that rather than focusing us on the subject on which we disagree with the other person, we focus on the other person and ask ourselves, how invested am I in this friendship? Would I rather lose this person’s friendship than lose this argument? Maybe it’s not supposed to happen that way, but I think it’s human nature that it does sometimes.

So that’s a difficulty in discussing these fake news accounts with anyone. But now consider the Thanksgiving table. You may be anticipating being seated next to Uncle Fred, whose views of foreigners, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, GLBTQ people, poor people are unprintable. You decided years ago that he is immune to argument or appeals to his sense of justice. You decided he just has to pass on and hope that his virulent bigotry dies with him. But he’s your late father’s only living sibling, and you can’t refuse to talk to him or throw him out of the house.

I just wonder if the relative calm of Thanksgiving this year was because a lot of people, exhausted from dealing with fake news, just could not summon the nerve to deal with Uncle Fred and begged off a family Thanksgiving altogether. Maybe there was no holiday havoc on the highways, but there is enough havoc in our brains to put a damper on the celebrations.

Maybe the quiet doesn’t have anything to do with fake news or anything on the national scene. Maybe we’re just trying to process what home has become in our lives. Provincetown Poet Stanley Kunitz wrote a great poem abut his life in which he wrote the line, “I have made a tribe of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered.” Many of us moved to Cape Cod to embrace the magical landscape we had loved from our youth, but in so doing moved away from the children and grandchildren pursuing lives in cities up and down the East Coast or further.

The old song says “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Some of us find ourselves without any family or friends this year. Frequently people who happen to be apart from family will find one another and celebrate together anyway. Some however, maybe some in this room, ate their Thanksgiving dinner by themselves. And there are some who volunteered to give the needy who had neither family nor funds a Thanksgiving to fill their stomachs.

There are ghosts of Thanksgivings past, and these are populated by people whose voice we will never hear again, whose face we will never see again, great aunts whose sloppy kisses on our cheeks we will never wipe off on our sleeves again. There are ghosts of holidays present when our extended relatives stay home or travel to other relatives than us to share the table, and we are apart from them. There are the ghosts of holidays future when we wonder who will not be with us the next years, and how much longer each of us will be around to celebrate.

Of course, the relative quiet of the highways or the malls may simply be that more people have finally figured out how to use their computers to communicate, and not only do their holiday shopping online but their holiday visiting as well. Why brave the highways or airports when you can savor the cuteness of that new grandchild on Skype or Facetime?

But let’s get back to the five senses at the Holidays. One of the distinctive features of this time of year is that the music track in public spaces changes. I wonder if people are staying out of stores to avoid hearing the “Little Drummer Boy.” I know folk music enthusiasts who run a contest to see who can get through the entire holiday season without hearing this ubiquitous melody.

But you really can’t escape holiday music no matter how much you’d like to try. What I really want to know is, what flips the holiday music switch in our minds? Most of the year I avoid Christmas music like the plague. If it comes on a device over which I have any control, I will change the program. And then around this time of the year it is like someone flips a switch in my mind and all I want to listen to is holiday music.

What does it do for us? Like the smells and tastes, music connects us with holidays past. We learned the carols and the songs in school or in church or listening to the radio or going singing from door to door. During the year, we are unaware of the treasure trove lurking in our memories. It is only when we hear that melody, perhaps on an elevator or from the sleazy videos at the gas pump, that we discover as we drive off that we still remember all three verses in English to O Come All Ye Faithful. Maybe even in the one in Latin.

Some of us are repelled by holiday music and some of us will fill our calendars up with performing or listening to it. Most of the havoc, most of the busyness of the holidays, is self-inflicted.

People, embrace the havoc! Let us plunge ahead into the rest of the Holiday season. Let us seek out the music and the food and the company which brings us joy. Let us marvel at the lights and indulge in the sensory delights on offer. It’s a crazy world and it doesn’t entirely make sense, and we can go out and enjoy it anyway!


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