True ‘Holiday Magic’ Can’t Be Manufactured

As part of The Times’s 31 Days of Holiday Treasures, a digital advent calendar of delight, my colleague Susan Shain talks to moms who are ditching the pressure to make “holiday magic.” The term is everywhere these days — Spotify has a Holiday Magic playlist, the arts and crafts chain Michaels has a Holiday Magic online landing page — but for those looking for a definition, “holiday magic” is sort of a cottage industry of crafting, baking, decorating and event-planning starting around Thanksgiving that mostly (but not exclusively) moms undertake.

The moms Shain talked to aren’t the only ones pushing back against this often mirthless, tinsel-strewn arms race. Indeed, I only started hearing about the term “holiday magic” from essays decrying it — a small sampling here, here, here and here.

I’ve always been relatively immune to this pressure, but I think that’s partly because I’m Jewish and partly because I live in a New York City apartment, not in an exurban Hallmark-movie cabin. Not everyone around me celebrates Christmas, and there’s no Griswoldian pressure to have the most glaring light display in town. (That said, watching “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” is one of the few holiday traditions we do observe.)

Last month in her newsletter, my friend Anne Helen Petersen had quite a good take on what she terms “sprawling holidays,” in which holiday performance isn’t just about Christmas anymore; it has infected every celebration, from St. Patrick’s Day to Halloween. As she put it, lots of previously muted or contained holidays “have come to feel like mini-marathons, spread out over several days, if not weeks, particularly for parents and children. Holidays are now ‘seasons’ unto themselves, with performances and consumption habits and photos, the experience of which oscillates between joy and slightly numb obligation.”

Anne reminds us that holidays were meant to be a time of rest and reflection rather than a materialistic bonanza. I know that’s easier said than done: My 10-year-old already sent me a link-filled Google doc with all her gift requests. (Apparently, she’s not alone.)

But as we stumble headlong into December and all its attendant obligations, I want to suggest that we redefine what holiday magic is in the first place.

After a decade of Decembers with children, I’ve come to believe that what children find meaningful about this season is a sense of regularity and ritual. They mark the passage of time in their growing brains with cherished moments that often have nothing to do with gifts. What they remember tends not to be moments that I elaborately engineered for them, or even made an effort to Instagramably capture for posterity.

For example: My daughters always see their cousins on Thanksgiving, and it’s all they can talk about in the weeks leading up to the event. They see them at other points throughout the year, but there’s something slightly magical about that specific afternoon with its early waning sunlight, when everyone is together and my mom always makes the same rich chocolate cake that my kids keep mentioning for days afterward.

My girls always dress up for Thanksgiving, even though the adults don’t, and no one told them to. I’ve never asked them why they do it, but I think that it’s because the day is meaningful to them, and they want to honor that.

We’re not always in New York for Christmas, but when we are, my girls love to pick out a tree from one of the several sidewalk vendors in our neighborhood. Over the years, we’ve also made more of an effort to light Hanukkah candles on every night of the holiday. (And yes, folks, I know, Hanukkah’s relative cultural prominence has been driven up by its proximity to Christmas on the Gregorian calendar — though I imagine that’s also part of the comfort of ritual, even if not in a strictly religious sense.) My daughters know that our menorah is one of the few things my great-grandmother brought with her when she fled Austria in the late 1930s. It is a modest menorah — not big or ornate and not made of a precious metal.

I had no idea that this made such an impression until the other day, when my 6-year-old asked me if the menorah really was over 100 years old. I told her it was. Then she asked me who would get the menorah when she and her sister were grown-ups. I said they’d have to share it, but she wanted it all to herself.

In her article about moms eschewing holiday magic-making, Shain interviews the Whitman College sociologist Michelle Janning. Janning explains that moms may feel pressured to create said magic because of a feeling she describes as “imagined future nostalgia.”

What these moments with my kids already tell me is that I can’t dictate what they find meaningful about the holidays, or what they’ll remember 30 years from now and try to impart to their own children. My husband and I can only try to make the holidays as joyful as possible without a whole lot of fuss and hope that no matter what they do as adults, we’ll still get to be a part of it.

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