Year after year, the holiday season comes on like a migraine: faint at first, then steadily more unpleasant. The weird tidings begin in October, when for a few weeks Halloween costumes uncomfortably share shelf space with Christmas merchandise at the drug store.
That is when, for me, the dread arrives.
All of it is coming again, I say to myself. The compulsory shopping. The compulsory travel. The compulsory merriment. The compulsory music. (God help me, the compulsory music.) All of it builds and builds until, just before Christmas, to leave the home is to cross over into a disorienting miasma of snarling consumers and garish sweaters and nightmarish dogs singing "Jingle Bells."
And somehow, more than anything, I dread the lights, the electrified decorations that, night after night, pour I-can't-imagine-how-many gigawatts of precious power out into the cold evening air. The ice caps are melting, the oceans are rising and gasoline prices are through the roof -- but we waste all this energy on glowing ersatz icicles and freaking luminescent inflatable snowmen? Traditionally, the lights have made me want to go inside, draw the shades and brood in the dark.
But the strangest thing happened to me the other night, as I was making my way down North Baldwin Street, on the isthmus. I passed house after house bedecked with lights, and at first I thought my usual grumbling, sour thoughts about the holidays.
Then unfamiliar feelings began to wash over me. Without warning, I felt warmed by the lights. I felt comforted by the lights. I felt drawn to the lights. (I did not feel drawn to the inflatable snowmen.) And I realized that, at least for those of us who live in the northern latitudes, we put the lights up during the season when the nights are longest and the days are coldest, when the trees are bare and the ice and wind keep us huddled indoors.
A thought struck me: Could it be that my perennially foul mood, this time of year, is exactly what the cheerful tumult of the holidays is meant to cure? Because when all around is wintry and bleak, the rituals of the season get us out of our isolation. Whether we want to or not -- and crappy weather has a way of persuading me not to do anything -- we emerge, we gather with friends and family, we bestow gifts. Together we eat and drink. Together we sing. All of this is indeed compulsory, of course, but sometimes the key to good mental health is taking actions we know are good for us, whether we want to or not.
And we string up the lights, and we turn them on and feel warmed by them. They are a beacon in the cold night. They may say to passers-by: There is life in here. And passers-by, gazing at the lights, may respond: There is life in there.
Or they may respond: Get a load of that hideous glowing inflatable snowman.