A Lone Zebra on New Year’s Eve
I don’t care about the holidays. And yet they remind me of how things are supposed to look.
Here’s something to think about while navigating the corpses of Christmas trees strewn across the sidewalk: Why do worldly or sophisticated or otherwise independent-minded people allow the holidays to depress them? We like to think our minor existential dreads are unique or at least generated by some original spark in our own psyches. Why, then, do we let something as silly as the holidays give us a clichéd, culturally determined despair?
I was thinking about this on New Year’s Eve when I was talking to a glamorous artist. She was divorced and recently emerging from a romantic smash-up. We were both feeling sort of oppressed by “the holidays” and wondering why we were oppressed, that is, why we were allowing something as commercial or artificial as “the holidays” to get inside our heads, and reproach us for messy lives in a way we wouldn’t tolerate at any other time of year.
New Year’s Eve is basically the Noah’s ark of evenings. As the paired animals parade onto the ship, the lone zebras and lions eye one another other with bemusement before the deluge. If you are involved with more than one person, or no one, or harbor some romantic uncertainty, or are in the empty phase before a break up, or have otherwise fallen askew of conventional family life, then the glittering moments before midnight seem to be issuing you a special critique.
I have noticed other people who live unusual or messy lives falling prey to the seductive malaise of “the holidays.” It is for everyone a season of vulnerability to appearances: You are aware, as you may not be at other points of the year, of how things are supposed to look. You care, more than you should care, that the joy you are pursuing is anarchic, or unusual, or that you have failed at some really hackneyed vision of holiday festivities.
Some of our special susceptibility to conventionality at this time of year may be related to childhood, arising on visits to childhood homes, nights in a childhood bed, a communing with expectations or desires or fantasies that belong more naturally to children than adults. There is a memory of other Christmases or New Year’s Eves that this inferior one naturally compares itself with. There is the stronger-than-usual sense of the way things are supposed to be.
Even people in regular family configurations can feel a vague disappointment. If, say, your children are tearing through presents too quickly, ripping paper, and moving on with such eagerness, you realize it is simply the greed of acquisition they are high on, and that itself is depressing; you may feel glimmers of that traditional holiday emptiness, that sense of alienation from the ideal world, that you don’t care at all about, in the other 11 months of the year.
But if you are a single mother, a single woman, a divorced father, the holidays seem to accentuate some absurd and outdated notion that you are failing or falling short or not producing the appearance of normal adult life. (I say “appearance” because the emphasis in this season is really on appearances, on Christmas trees strung with lights, on a family that looks right, on an elegant couple drinking Champagne, tanned children frolicking on the beach in the Caribbean. Whatever dark thing is going on beneath the surface is really not the point. It is the look of the thing that is depressing you.)
The glamorous artist brings up families in July posing for Christmas cards on the beach in Bridgehampton, in crisp white shirts. They have been planning and scheming for those cards that long. They are pretty much harvesting their beauty or contentedness or at least affluence for this one moment where it is culturally acceptable to share or advertise it.
I actually like receiving holiday cards, just to see friends’ children growing up, but they do seem to contain a sort of ambiguous, almost aggressive statement of family happiness. There is something showy about that family, windswept on the beach, and deliberately outdated in the era of Facebook, printing up a snapshot of perfection, to be placed on mantels.
The artist tells me she would like to see a Christmas card of a kid crying, or someone pulling someone’s hair, or storming out of a room, and I agree that would be refreshing, that a halfway honest, unkempt, unpretty picture of familial goings-on would be almost a piece of art, a creative commentary on the ritual, a Philip Larkin poem in pictures.
I confess to her that I myself did something that was pretty much the worst of both worlds: At the last minute I suddenly decided to send an emailed New Year’s Eve card. So it was both annoying and uncool in the way family pictures sent out en masse are annoying and uncool, but it was not a nice object, as paper Christmas cards are nice objects. Even at the time I was suspicious of my impulse. Both of my children had been very sick over the holidays, my youngest with a fever so high he was seeing bugs everywhere he looked; it could be argued that our holiday was the exact opposite of a trip to Cancun.
So why did I do it? I may have been communicating directly to the family on the beach in Bridgehampton; I may have been crassly using the physical beauty of innocent children to make the point that a weird bohemian single-mother household is as much a family as any other kind. I may have been engaging in what Andrew Solomon in his new book calls the “the complex imagining” of an unconventional family structure. I was not, whatever the case, gracefully rising above. The regressive emotional power of the holidays is strong, but in these first fresh days of the new year, one can resolve, next year, not to drink the eggnog.
Katie Roiphe, professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages, and the forthcoming In Praise of Messy Lives.