If you haven’t guessed it by now, I am a “card-carrying member” of that ultimate group of societal curmudgeons who are heortophobes – someone with a “fear” of holidays. But I am more someone who dislikes and dreads holidays than fears them. It has resulted from a lifetime of really rotten things happening to me at holiday celebrations, especially with my own flesh-and-blood relatives.
You may be thinking, “Oh! Her parents must be cringing with embarrassment with this public profession she is making, as it looks like she is putting all the blame on them!” But, if given the chance, my parents can give accurate, graphic, first-hand accounts of some of the worst things which have happened over the years. And, it seems like they are somewhat sympathetic with my final deliberations and pronouncement that holidays really “blow chunks” in my direction. (Although, I do really like Thanksgiving, mostly because I like to give thanks to G_d, Who has provided for our every need.) Over time, my family has become fairly accepting when I don’t want to participate in family holiday gatherings.
However, there have been two notable exceptions to this odd, inexplicable tendency of mine – I like celebrating holidays with my husband’s family, and I loved experiencing Jewish holidays for the first time at Hillel at the University of Arizona when I was earning my second bachelors’ degree. With their chocolate Pesach Seders, “world’s largest latke” cooking contests over Hanukkah, and all-night ice cream eating marathons while studying Torah over Shavuot, this Hillel group could make any observance great. A lot of time, even the simplest holiday traditions and activities we shared together at Hillel had absolutely no prior context for me (I had some historical bases from Jewish friends, though), so of course, my expectations weren’t high to begin with.
Now, I’m not just saying all of this so that people have pity on me and invite me to be the perfect, sober, dignified emcee for any future Tisha B’Av public observances (although, my calendars are wide open for any future engagements). It is more out of a sense of realizing other people have this problem and there’s no good way to address the root causes and problems contributing to these atypical feelings. Society, as a whole, does not even support people with these conflicted feelings and makes them feel like “terrible people begrudging others of days off from work to rest and spend time with loved ones”.
The materials I have seen on this subject have either been so superficial or so far off the mark. Some explanations have been “people don’t like religious holidays because in their hearts, they are really atheists” so they need to accept that first; or “people don’t like national holidays because they are anarchists or rebels” and need to have Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to address an anti-social personality disorder; or to simply “just tell yourself X-Y-Z occasion is supposed to be a happy day and meant to be enjoyed”. With this last “solution”, the authors used as example the holiday of “Christmas”, which is the absolutely worst of the worst holidays to me (just the lack of sunlight at the height of winter is enough to make a lot of people down, depressed, or even sick that time of year. Add to that insensible dietary and imbibing patterns and you end up with a lot of hospitalizations over that holiday). It seems to just make whatever alienating feelings somebody already has even worse because nobody really understands the root causes, which differ for everybody.
I didn’t really understand why I disliked holidays until I started having good celebrations with my husband and in-laws and realized what about those events made me the happiest. The fact that my in-laws loved me and were always happy to see me meant a lot – growing up, it seemed like kids were just dragged along to whatever the family did and nobody really cared whether you were there or not. My husband’s family all had made “enjoying one another’s company” a huge priority; they didn’t have much in terms of material possessions, but they did have each other to support one another. They fixed big dinners of pretty simple foods as a means for gathering round and facilitating the process of supporting, loving, and enjoying one another. Everybody had the same status and value – even the little babies, which I found to be incredibly eye-opening. I can’t say that any of these simple virtues were particularly emphasized in my family’s gatherings – everything seemed very competitive to obtain things in life which don’t really matter in the long-run.
If other heortophobes are facing this struggle, I would suggest making a list of any parts of any holidays which they found enjoyable in the past – and I know it can be pretty hard to make such a list. Rather than focusing on the negative, focus on breaking away from the negative. One nice thing about marrying into a family (or suddenly finding out you’re a member of an extraordinarily supportive ethnic group) is you can leave the past behind in whatever degrees you choose and are most comfortable doing. You don’t have to break with the past completely, but you don’t have to incorporate activities that encourage behaviors or actions you don’t wish to experience further. Say, if somebody were a member of a substance-abusing or emotionally-abusing family, they may want to build a holiday around an abuse-free environment. It may mean finding new people and friends to build new holiday traditions or have a lot of fun eschewing somebody else’s mandatory traditions. For example, one family I know thinks singing “Happy Birthday” at birthday parties is “corny”, so their tradition is to sing the song as off-key and badly as possible! Sometimes, they even write the worst parodies about the “Happy Birthday” song (look out for some serious competition, Weird Al!).
Also, the world is not a static place and changes happen beyond our control – such as losing a friend or loved one. But good things (like falling in love, having children, getting a new home, etc.) also happen when we least expect it as well and we certainly want to be open for these joyful additions to enrich our events. So try every year to broaden the number of people included in your observances or the types of activities to keep holiday emphases fluid and not stagnating. Remember, the important thing is to “move forward” to positive celebrations rather than to “sink back” to negative happenings like those experienced in the past.