Temperature drops to the negatives. Malls extend their glittering arms. The choir wanders the school, carrying the age-old tune of “Silent Night” like a lit candle. Reds and golds look attractive all of a sudden. The body seems to stretch and hang onto the fading academic semester or work year, knowing there is something to look forward to, so close and so evocative. The holiday season.
While it carries varying levels of significance for different people, society as a whole, especially in such an urban, capitalist area as Seoul, takes on a general attitude of festivity and generous spending. As someone whose birthday is near Christmas, I have often been hit with the hollowness that accompanies the strewn-about wrappings and untied ribbons following a family or “secret santa” gift exchange. The whole process felt wasteful, putting an awful focus on materialism, and the traditions themselves felt devoid of meaning. My family is not religious. Why should we celebrate this arbitrary date? Shouldn’t we express love and appreciation every day of the year?
But this year, I’d like to defend the season from a personal perspective.
My family has always been big on tradition, setting aside the first weekend of December each year to pull out the tree and decorate it together. Not once in my memory did Christmas morning not begin with sitting around the tree, finding the gifts labeled “daughter” or “sister”. My parents make it a point to go out to dinner every Valentine’s day and anniversary. We get dressed in traditional Korean clothing every year, eat the same rice cake soup, and visit all our relatives.
Just because the marriage hits thirty years, it does not mean life has to settle into a state of permanence, when celebration is meaningless and the upkeep of tradition irrelevant. Just because the kids grow old, it does not mean one must stop putting the gifts under the tree. No, no one believes in Santa anymore, but we do believe in an enduring spirit that lets one believe in a physical and metaphorical home, where we can always return to.
That being said, any family can turn this tradition into their own. While mine does not go to church, we do believe in recounting the memories we’ve cherished through the years. Our tree is decorated with snowflakes and baubles, but also ornaments from all over the globe, as remnants of our travels. We have sparkly kiwi birds from New Zealand, a leather moose from Yellowstone National Park, an embroidered black cab and double-decker bus from London, and so on. They have never failed to put a smile on my face.
This returns to the oft-criticized consumerism culture that explodes in a grand crescendo every holiday season. While I do agree the focus on materialist goods gets out of hand, a well-selected gift can mean something. All objects depend on the meaning and narrative humans are able to bestow onto them, and a thoughtfully selected gift can end up being a physical reminder of what matters in your life.
Admittedly, I dislike the idea that gifts should be mandatory on occasions such as birthdays or Christmas. Why can’t we accept a nicely written letter sometimes, or a rough but heartfelt song played on a guitar? Nevertheless, I choose to take advantage of, rather than deny, the holiday spirit and culture, making sure my presents mean something.
And most of all, I take the moment to reflect on the past year and appreciate everyone that has converged with my path and shifted it somehow, however slightly and briefly. It’s a sentiment that never gets old— lights, candles, and the knowledge that I am who I am because of the people around me. Sure, we should be wishing good for everyone any day of the year, but we’re human. We’d like to have a nice reminder, and if it’s accompanied by poinsettias, hot cocoa, and carols, then all the better.