Finding meaning and joy beyond the hype of the festive season

At this time of year, when our cultural expectations are high (Christmas with family, obligatory gift giving, celebration of religious holy days) and constantly in our face (can you go anywhere or do anything without being greeted by tinsel, baubles and a large man in a red suit?), it can be easy to get caught in the wash of it all.

Most of us do want to belong.

The values the season purports to represent – joy, peace, love, goodwill – are things I definitely want in my life. But I am still unsettled by the way it’s all played out. For many years I resisted Christmas. It represented everything that I didn’t want – mass consumption of gifts and food, spending time with people I had little in common with and didn’t accept me for who I was, and having to play along with the illusion of happy families to keep the peace.

Early in this decade, as I began to re-examine my life and what was important, I looked for, and found, the good in the season. Those values I wanted everyday in my life were buried under some leftover gift wrap and a half-eaten piece of pudding (complete with brandy custard).

I looked to see what others got out of Christmas. Why do people go to extraordinary effort to make this day happen? There was the ritual of it – suddenly everyone knew what was expected. Crackers on the left and Santa serviettes on the right. There was the coming together of people who usually didn’t come together, there was the opportunity to show your love and give gifts to those you cared for, there was the affirmation of deeply ingrained religious beliefs that it was all alright. The saviour had come.

Intellectually, I got it. I understood why people would run about like headless chooks to get the perfect gift or perfect glaze. I understood the symbolism and hope of a saviour – that brought joy, peace, love and goodwill too.

Christmas became a cultural experience for me where I ventured into a different land. A land I was quite familiar with, as I knew the customs and rituals, but I saw it with new eyes.

With these new eyes I marvel at the sheer amount of food prepared and consumed. It fills me with joy that I can live in a time and place of such abundance (as I’m acutely aware that my everyday life does not include such feasts). But this overflowing isn’t due to affluence, it’s the result of everyone bringing one thing to the table – literally.

So, as we move into the second half of December, I’m wondering what we can glean from this time of year? What’s so very important to us that our culture virtually stops (commercially anyway) to celebrate it?

This article first appeared in the December 2009 edition of Design Notes, the newsletter of the Work/Life Design Program. You can find out more about Design Notes and the WLD Program at