The holiday season can be difficult for people without kids. It helps to remember that it's the rhetoric, rather than reality, that makes for trying times. Every year I get so tired of hearing the phrases "the holidays are really all about the kids - or, for the kids - or, only fun seen through the eyes of kids." To me, the kid-oriented aspects of the holiday season are the least fun, interesting or moving.
Like all kids, I loved the thrill of anticipation of gifts, especially when I was young enough to believe in Santa Claus. The belief lent a sense of mystery and out-of-ordinariness to the season. Still, even as a small kid I knew that the packages under the tree were related to my parents frenzy and obviously tedious shopping trips in which I was not allowed to participate. My parents overall seemed more stressed than joyful. The difference in the holiday experience between old and young left an impression on me. I never developed a desire to be the adult in this equation.
And, when after weeks of anticipation the day of shredding arrived, I was left feeling curiously empty. After all the weeks of preparation, it took my brothers and me about 30 minutes to rip open our packages and investigate the contents thoroughly. Immediately afterwards, we were whisked away to church services and an exhausting day of driving to visits with relatives who seemed as tense as my parents. I was always left entirely depleted and let down the day after the holiday.
I realized early on that the most enjoyable parts of the season took place before and around the actual holidays - the lights, the change in the weather and season, the sense of people being more open to the idea of loving giving than in other parts of the year - all the most beautiful aspects of the season are available to adults as well as children.
So now, instead of hiding in my house and waiting for the holiday season to pass quickly because I don't have kids or grand kids, I go out and revel in the best of the season. Here are some of my favorite holiday habits:
* Enjoying the lights. Tacky light displays, old-fashioned lighted wreathes, reverential and transcendent displays are all available in abundance and to enjoy for free. Even in difficult economic times, people seem willing to spring for their holiday light displays. When I'm feeling down, a ride around town to view the different artistic takes on the holidays is uplifting and refers to a time when a longing for light in the darkest part of the year was key to the season - an inherently human longing that cuts across cultural barriers.
* Enjoying the silence. On days when kids are indoors with their new stuff, the environment can be surprisingly silent. No busses screeching to a stop in front of my house on weekday mornings during the winter school break. Fewer kids in the public parks makes for more enjoyable dog walking. Also, something about the holiday season makes me want to seek out silent and contemplative settings. So, while driving along country roads seeking light displays, it's nice to stop the car, get out in the sparkling cold, look up at the stars, and appreciate the season soundlessly.
* Enjoying the music. Holiday music can be surprisingly inspiring and abundant with free concerts offered everywhere from malls to churches. Since the canned media versions of carols start before Thanksgiving, holiday music can seem grating and dreary by the New Year. It's sad because, separated from selling, carols are beautifully composed, passionately spiritual and historic. Early Puritans, and followers of Oliver Cromwell in Great Britain, banished caroling in a campaign to suppress Catholicism. Therefore, some of the seemingly time worn holiday songs are also glorious sounds of resistance, rebellion and artistic freedom.
* Enjoying the spirit of giving. Sure, it sounds corny, but truly, the greatest joy in the holiday season can be found in giving to others. Not necessarily to kids, in the sense of the greedy toy frenzy most parents are referring to when they tell you that the holidays are just for children, but to someone who really needs what you have to give in terms of time, money, or talent. There will always be people, young and old (and other critters) that need and appreciate what is given, especially when given with heart and sincerity - characteristics child-free people often have in abundance.
* Enjoying giving a gift to Self. In the midst of the rhetoric of giving - meaning heading to the marketplace to find the perfect object to appease the needs of someone else - adults forget to take care of themselves and wind up feeling depleted and depressed. Giving a gift to self can simply mean braving the hordes at the mall to find that perfect coat at half-off price, or buying something completely impractical, like art, that you will enjoy all the more because it's so perfectly irrational. And, the best gift to the self is the gift of time - taking the time to step outside of the holiday family-kid-rhetoric for a moment of solitude to appreciate the most essential aspect of the season - a heightened appreciation of all the beauty in the world.