Have you noticed that most of the holidays that happen in the month of December involve the giving and receiving of gifts? Whether it’s Yule or Christmas or Kwanzaa or Hanukah, gift-giving is a component of the festivities. And that gift giving is mutual.
Is there anything worse than being part of a holiday celebration and being the one person who didn’t get a gift? Maybe it’s being the person who forgot to get a gift when you have received one. The failure of mutuality at a holiday celebration is super-duper awkward. We try to avoid it if we can. That’s why most of us have “The List.”
The List is those people who you share the holiday time with most deeply. They are who you are present with, who you share the holiday meals and festivities with. They are who you give gifts to, and from whom you expect gifts in return. Sometimes they will drive you crazy. Sometimes it feels more like obligation than love. Sometimes it’s actually the result more of tradition than desire. Everyone’s reasons for who is on The List is different, and the reason is likely different even for each person on the list. And the reason you are on someone’s else’s List might not be the reason that they are on yours.
It gets even more complicated. Because for each person on The List a different kind of exchange is required. You decide at some point, what you will exchange. Is it cards? Holiday cookies? Presents? Invitations to holiday parties? There are all kinds of things that you can exchange.
There is another name for your Holiday List. They are your community.
Yule is, at bottom, about community. Consider, for a moment, what it might be like to live in the region we now know as Scandinavia at about 300AD. You live in a village and survival is hard. You maybe grow some food, or fish for food or have a trade that lets you barter for food. Likely it’s a combination of all those things. You eke out a living as best you can. You probably have some goats and chickens. As the weather turns from the chill of fall to the cold of winter, you’ve been storing up food in your larder to survive the lean season. You bring your livestock in to a barn if you have one, and if you don’t they come straight into your shelter with your family. During the cold of winter, maybe you’re mending your fishing nets for the next season. Maybe you’re spinning and weaving cloth from wool that you’ve gathered. Maybe you’re hunting for venison to shore up your stocks, or ice-fishing.
You’re also visiting the other families around you, your community. You bring gifts with you. Maybe you baked a pie or an extra loaf of bread that you offer your host. Maybe when those friends and family come over you offer them a meal from your larder — some stew or cheese or some mead. The days are shorter, the nights are longer, and the time moves slower. And you reach out to each other to pass that time together, because the cold and the dark and the hunger are much easier to face if you are not alone.
Indeed, in this bygone era of history, to be without a community around you was lethal. Anyone who has ever actually attempted to homestead will tell you that trying to meet all your needs with just your own two hands and a few acres of land is pretty damn difficult, if not impossible. You will need the support of a community to survive. You will need your fellow humans to trade with, to help you with those things that are too much to manage alone. Being a traveler was dangerous, because you were away from “your people” — the people who know you and can vouch for you, and who will have your back if you need it. That’s why so many ancient cultures had tenets about hospitality. It is a social construct that allows travelers to leave their homes and not die.
Yule is that moment when you gather at the family hearth, before your family’s gods and remind each other of how important you are to each others’ lives. You exchange gifts, you sit by the fire and take stock of what’s happened, and dream about what you will do in the time to come, when the sun returns.
In this day and age, the idea of being a social outcast, a rebel, being shunned by one’s friends and family and community, still happens, and it’s still painful, but it’s not quite the automatic death sentence as it was in the days of yore. After all, we live in the era where the nuclear family is lionized. It is often held up as the baseline of what people should aspire to — family means a couple and their kids living on their own, without grandparents or aunties or others about. But couples are not the only people on their own today. In 1960, in no age group could you find more than 20% of people living alone. By 2018, nearly 20% of 60 year olds lived alone, and that number more than doubled for people over 90. The idea of being able to “take care of yourself” is almost a rallying cry for some who see those who need others to get by as parasites rather than people. Since the 1950’s, there’s almost been a romanticizing of the rebel, the outsider who does not conform to their community. See, eg. James Dean.
Some of this is a good thing. Historically communities have insisted on belonging and conformity and that has worked to the detriment of people who have differing genders, differing ways of loving, differing appearance, differing beliefs or differing abilities. Being different was what led to being cast out from your community. Being more accepting of individualism has been a good thing in many ways for many of us. Our communities become better places, more functional and richer, when we embrace people who are different, when we do not insist that to be different is to make oneself an outcast.
In 2020, the pandemic has taught us, with a ruthless and deadly hand, that perhaps individuality and “taking care of oneself” is not the be all and end all. As much as we love to believe the trope of the “rugged individualist,” the fact is we still need each other. We are still a community, and when something like a pandemic hits, we need to be able to act as a community. Because when we don’t, people die. We also need the ability to talk to and touch other people. We are not meant to be hermits living alone on a hillside. We are not loners in the end. We don’t like being isolated from the people on our List.
Let me be clear. In 2020 the best way that you can love those on your List, your community, at Yuletide is to NOT gather en masse for the holidays. Observe social distancing and masking protocols, send your gifts and cards via the mail rather than in person. By all means mark the season — enjoy the company of your gods and your kin from a distance, and do all the dreaming of past and planning for future you like. The beauty of spirit and magic is that it crosses time and space, and can often provide a bridge during a time when you feel separated. No, it’s not the same. But it’s what we have right now. Sometimes we do what we need to, not what we’d like to.
And while we’re on the subject of what’s needed, we need to understand that our community goes beyond people we exchange gifts and cards with. The List is actually a lot longer. It includes the parents, teachers and kids in your child’s school. It includes your coworkers and your customers and clients in your workplace. It includes the people shopping alongside you in the grocery store. Because while you don’t send the cashier at the CVS a card every year, and the guy who’s delivering your Amazon packages isn’t going to get any of your holiday banana bread, you are sharing this space and exchanging things and therefore part of the same community. We need to start acting like it.
Wherever you are, whoever you are celebrating with, or without, here’s wishing you a blessed Yuletide season.