Stoicism Over The Holidays
by Greg Sadler
It’s that time of year, when the world falls in love.
Every song you hear seems to say, Merry Christmas.
May your New Year dreams come true.
By now, you’ve perhaps heard that old Frank Sinatra tune, the Christmas Waltz – whether on the radio, while shopping, piped in somewhere as background – at least several times this holiday season. It expresses a rather optimistic ideal for what the holidays could be like, but goes further than that, presenting an imaginary image in three lines to the listener as revealing the true and underlying reality of “that time of year”. The experience most (perhaps all) of us have, each successive holiday season, does not always match up to this.
Fortunately, for many, the holidays do provide moments or periods of joy, of reconnection, of excitement, of giving and receiving genuine affection (not to mention, for many, gifts or presents). But it is also quite often – even for those looking forward to them – a stressful time. Bringing one’s family together for a common meal, for exchanging and opening gifts, for celebration carries with it risks of all sorts. Disagreements, disappointments, tensions, even all-out-holiday brawls (when you have them, it is better to conduct the “sharing of grievances” earlier during Festivus!)
Renewed (or more acutely felt) grief at being reminded of the absence of those who have passed away – which some feel more acutely during the holidays – is just one common mode of sadness or pain that arises for some during the holidays. Loneliness is another that descends upon many who don’t have a strong circle of family or friends to share fellowship with. Some are estranged, others bear hidden grief, anger, sadness, or fear which they feel they must keep to themselves. The holidays can also be a very busy time, filled with parties, last minute shopping, decoration, meals, travel, each of which can produce its own stresses and frustrations, particularly when our expectations run high.
As I blocked in the schedule for posts in Stoicism Today months back, and saw that we would be publishing on the 24th, Christmas Eve, I thought it might be fitting for me to author a piece on Stoicism and the holidays. There were several reasons, to which a particularly personal one has recently been added. To start with, there have been some discussions and queries about what Stoicism might have to say about various holidays in the Facebook Stoicism group, so I pledged that I’d write something on that topic. But, it also struck me that precisely because of the holidays – and given that a good bit of our readership does tend to be from countries where Christmas does get celebrated (at least with parties, and time off from work), guest authors might be less enthusiastic about having their post run on a day it might draw less readers.
As it turns out, for several reasons, this year we will be having a rather low-key Christmas in our own household. And so, a good bit more of the Stoic advice and reflections I’d intended to provide here ends up being personally needed and applicable this time around. It’s a busy time, not only because of holidays, but because it is the end of the year itself, so for those who have their own businesses (at least of certain types), not to mention other obligations and commitments, there’s a lot of work yet left to finish. We still have yet to put up, or even unpack, any decorations as I write this, days before Christmas. There have also been some ongoing medical issues of various severity on one side of our family, which mean some of the celebrating will likely occur in the hospital. On the other side of our family, the manners in which the holidays and everyone’s schedule fit into the calendar rules out any big family gathering we could participate in.
Which Holidays Do I Mean?
There’s a first issue, I think, that bears being mentioned, and that can be put precisely as that question – which (and whose) holidays am I discussing here? Over the last hundred or so years, Christmas effectively became what we might term a “joint-use” holiday, celebrated by most of those for whom it was a central occasion of the liturgical year, Christians – there’s a long, complex story to be told about that, which I skip over here – but also by many other people as well. As always, someone will no doubt feel the need to pedantically point out that Christians coopted an already existing Roman holiday, the Saturnalia. What is interesting about that is not who gets to call “original dibs”, metaphorically speaking, on the day of the year, but that Saturnalia and Christmas thereby already provide an example of an earlier, similar “joint-use”.
You see, for many in our contemporary culture, Christmas long ago became a “secularized” holiday, quite literally, an aspect of the age and its dominant culture. It involves a whole host of festive symbols and decorations, to be sure, that can be traced back into Christian usages and innovations – sometimes deliberate reinterpretations of pre-Christian, pagan customs (the whole issue of evergreen boughs, wreaths, trees, and the like, involves a murky and complicated tale) – but many people enjoy those with little to no reference to Christianity. Many, if not most, people get some vacation time, get invited to parties and gatherings, watch at least some “Christmas special” content, end up hearing Christmas songs (some of which have clearly religious origins and themes, and others of which focus on other aspects of the season and holidays).
There are also a number of holidays celebrated by other religions, groups, and communities in our multi-cultural societies. I’ll undoubtably leave someone out in just naming a few here, and no offense is intended in not attempting a comprehensive list. The Jewish holiday time of Hanukkah begins this year on this very day, the 24th. The African-American holiday time, Kwanza, begins its celebrations on December 26. the Winter Solstice, celebrated by people ranging from neo-pagans to secular humanists, occurred back on the 21st. Festivus – the recently coined holiday “for the rest of us” – took place yesterday on the 23rd.
By this time of year, at least here in the USA, there has usually been some unpleasantness and discord over precisely whose holidays the season is supposed to be about. It tends to center primarily around whether we refer to Christmas or to “The Holidays.” For instance, is it proper to wish someone “Merry Christmas,” when one is a Christian and the other person is not? Or must one instead go with the more inclusive “Happy Holidays”? People do get quite worked up over these matters. And as an added complication, there’s debate over the role of Santa, the propriety of gift-giving, what sort of decorations are appropriate, and so on.
I’d like to suggest that a practicing Stoic would deliberately steer clear of involvement in those intractable and perennial disagreements. There’s little point, nothing to gain, and plenty to lose, in getting involved in the issue, whether in face to face conversation, in various online media, or even just within the play of one’s own emotions. If other people want to contest what we might call the “holiday space”, using their time at the end of the year in that way, that is something up to them, and doesn’t have to be taken on as a concern for a Stoic. It is just as possible to go into a situation in which people deliberately wish each other greetings intended to push each other’s figurative buttons and press their claims, as it was in Epictetus’ time to enter the public baths, reminding oneself that what one really wants to do is maintain one’s interior dispositions in accordance with nature (as best one can!).
Wishing another person well, by whatever greeting one chooses to employ, can be taken by the recipient in a way that focuses on the fact that another person is wishing him or her well. Alternately, it can be taken by the recipient as an attempt by the holiday well-wisher to foist values and beliefs the recipient does not share onto him or her. This is a prime example of the famous dictum of the “two handles.” One has a choice about which handle to take, and the Stoic exercising prudence will take the handle the matter can be successfully carried by.
Participating In the Festival
Whatever holiday one has in mind during the holiday season, there’s typically quite a few things that, from a Stoic perspective, may strike one as irrational, silly, focused far too much on externals, even a waste of one’s time, or an imposition upon one. Interestingly, Epictetus discusses situations like that in several passages of the Discourses. In one, he says:
When the children come up to us and clap their hands and say “Today is the good Saturnalia,” do we say to them, “All this is not good?” Not at all, but we too clap our hands to them. (1.29)
This is an analogy, adduced in order to suggest how we can approach those who we think would be better off taking a Stoic point of view, but who are not ready to do, or perhaps who will always be resistant to it. But we could take it more literally. There’s no point to being a morose, lecturing spoiler, insisting on playing a role of the austere, joyless Stoic (which is, after all, not really what Stoicism is about) when it comes to holidays. One can participate in the “holiday spirit” cheerfully without thereby losing oneself or abandoning one’s established way of life.
Epictetus draws upon the Saturnalia in another analogy a bit earlier in book 1.
At the Saturnalia a king is chosen by lot. The king gives commands: “You drink, you mix wine, you sing, you go, you come” I obey, so as not to be the one to break up the game. (1.25)
He sees a value there in “not breaking up the game,” one that can easily be transferred to holiday rituals, traditions, and celebrations. In fact, later in book 4, Epictetus notes that taking part in a festival is not just a matter of not disrupting or denigrating it in ways that might affect others, but can also offer its own enjoyable experience. Immediately after once again reminding us about the need to focus on what lies within our control, what is a matter of moral purpose or the faculty of choice (prohairesis), he says to the person who complains because he has to live his life out in the midst of a turmoil:
Imagine that you are in Olympia, regard the turmoil as a festival. There too, one person shouts this and another that; one does this and another that; one jostles another; there is a crowd in the baths. And yet, who does not take delight in the Olympic festival and leave it with sorrow. . . . If you fall in with a crowd, call it games, a festival, a holiday, try to keep holiday with the people. For what is pleasanter to a person who loves his or her fellow human being than the sight of large numbers of them? (4.4)
Simply put, a Stoic following Epictetus’ advice will be at antipodes from a Scrooge (at least the one at the start of A Christmas Carol) . He or she might think some of what is going on is “humbug”, but won’t feel the need to make an issue of that at the time, and will participate with good cheer in the festivities.
Celebrating The Holidays
By the time I write this, those who have those temptations thrust in their faces have hopefully made it through the notorious office holiday parties. Sometimes they can be great fun with one’s colleagues and co-workers. In other cases they can prove a dull obligation, but what one really has to watch out for are those parties where the drinks flow freely, people indulge past the point of moderation and conviviality, and craziness ensues. From a Stoic perspective, of course, that’s just one occasion where whatever level of the virtue of temperance a person has developed needs to be drawn upon during the holiday season.
There are usually ample opportunities to indulge oneself. Candy, cookies, and other sweets become nearly ubiquitous at this time of year. This is also a time when all sorts of other traditional dishes and treats get bought, prepared, and consumed (in our family, it tends to be meat-pie, i.e. tourtiere, with oyster soup, and sometimes smoked salmon). With parties and other festivities also often comes a potential for overindulgence in all sorts of other things that provide pleasures of the body as well. It’s useful to keep in mind Seneca’s advice about Saturnalia conduct in his 18th Letter to Lucilius:
[T]his is just the season when we ought to lay down the law to the soul, and bid it be alone in refraining from pleasures just when the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures; for this is the surest proof which a man can get of his own constancy, if he neither seeks the things which are seductive and allure him to luxury, nor is led into them. It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.
Notice that he frames the Stoic attitude in two possible ways. One can refrain entirely, hold oneself aloof from the physical accoutrements of shared celebration. Or one can enjoy them, but in a reasonable, moderate manner.
It isn’t just the attraction to these-days-easily-accessible pleasures that may pose a challenge to the committed Stoic during the holidays – one made a bit more difficult by the very departures from the everyday routines that accompanies this end-of-the-year interval of time. For many, the holidays involve getting together with friends and family. And while in some cases, those get-togethers are very enjoyable – even something one eagerly anticipates in months prior – for many others, those interactions prove much less enjoyable, edifying, or even healthy.
This is where the Stoic “reserve clause” can come in very handy. That’s shorthand for deliberately and sometimes explicitly saying “fate willing” as a reminder that many things lie outside of our control. Within the matrix of the family – particularly for those whose main face to face contact with their family occurs largely at occasional events and holidays – there are common pitfalls for which the reserve clause can prove useful.
Some place unduly high expectations upon how things will pan out over the holidays, raising their hopes that, for example, “This Christmas is going to be the best ever!” Considered closely, that set of expectations seems likely to be disappointed, as plans go awry, people don’t react as one would like, or in short, events go contrary to expectations. All of these provide occasions to remind oneself that some things are indeed outside of one’s control, and that one’s genuine good or bad lie involves what is within one’s control – or as Epictetus likes to frame it, what lies within the domain of one’s faculty of choice.
Here also, I think, is where it becomes useful to keep in mind the Stoic understanding of duties and their connection with roles and relationships. As human beings, we exist within a matrix of relationships, many of which we find ourselves saddled with because of matters that we had little to no choice about. Much of our family relationships are of this sort. We do, however, have some measure of choice in how we live out our roles and relationships. We don’t get to decide, of course, how others will behave towards us.
We are prone to disappointment – particularly over the holidays – over gulfs that emerge between the relationships we do experience and the relationships we might like to imagine, or to hope for, with our family members (or sometimes with friends as well). But in certain respects, that’s up to them. If a sibling, a parent, a child – or extending these considerations beyond the family, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor – doesn’t choose to live out (or even understand) the role that comes with that relationship, then from a Stoic perspective that is indeed something bad. But it’s not primarily bad for you. It’s bad, as Epictetus says, for the person who damages or even destroys that person with him or herself, for example the parent, the sibling, the friend, or the neighbor. What is up to us, however, is how we conduct ourselves, how we choose to think about the situation, and thereby also what we feel.
Being Alone Over the Holidays
There can be stresses, conflicts, and disappointments that mar one’s pleasant (but not realistic) hopes and expectations about what the holidays will hold. But for some people in particular, there is much less to look forward to, and those days and nights might even become something one comes to dread, or to want to get through as quickly as possible. There are a number of people who find the holidays difficult for a variety of reasons.
Foremost among these, perhaps, is loneliness. Feeling isolated from others, particularly at a time of year when relationships, parties, family, traditions, and the like receive so much stress – not only in actual life but also in the songs, movies, and shows about the holidays – can produce a painful sense of being alone, even being the one person you know who is on his or her own, forgotten, cut off from others. That certainly is a painful condition – something that I think not only I and many others can say from experience, but also a matter the classic Stoic authors likely could relate to at some point in their own lives.
Although I don’t expect that it provides an immediate or easy consolation, what Epictetus has to say about solitude may prove helpful, at least to some. He writes, arguably from his own experience, about a state of eremia, which can be translated as “solitude,” “forlornness”, or “loneliness”. When we feel this way, what underlies it is a sense that we are bereft of those from whom we might get some help, share something, find some personal connection. Epictetus notes that this can occur, even when we are surrounded by other people (3.13).
This is a point where reminding ourselves that we are not entirely on our own can be useful. Contemporary Stoics are not all theistic in their worldview, but can at least appreciate the idea that a human being is part not only of whatever community he or she happens to live in, but also a larger, more universal community that Epictetus declares is one of “gods and human beings” (2.6). So although we may be in some respects on our own, and feel lonely, Stoicism offers a perspective from which we can view ourselves as integrated parts of a larger whole of humanity.
There’s much more that could be said, but these reflections seem like a fitting place to bring this post to a close. So, let me wish all of you readers, on behalf of the entire Stoicism Today team, a holiday season in which you enjoy what the good emotions have to offer, you find the best part of yourselves through successfully living out your roles and relationships, you manage to maintain your moral purpose, and during which relaxation readies you for facing the new year to come!
Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog. He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources. He works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.