A Winnicottian Reflection on the Meaning of Christmas
On the importance of rituals that provide shared experience in a time of social anomie.
Note: I originally wrote this essay as a Facebook “Note” in early November 2007. Call it a ‘beckoning’ from the recent past if you will, but with a growing platform here on Substack, along with a continuing persistent mental voice commanding me to revisit this essay, I have slightly revised it for a second dissemination. I believe its relevance to the current Woke insanity we are living through, with attendant efforts to abolish long-standing norms and customs under the pretense that they exclude, marginalize, or otherwise oppress marginalized ‘victims’ of a patriarchal, capitalistic society will be made clear to the reader as they make their way through the brief essay.
I want to address something that occurred to me during further reflection on a brief conversation I had today. The topic of the meaning of Christmas came up and thoughts were shared and considered. Speaking generally, I think we can all agree that there must be an understanding of what, we, as human beings of varied belief systems or no belief systems are celebrating when we enact rituals, or a common set of celebratory behaviors on a given holiday, most notably here, Christmas (or for that matter, Hanukah etc.). However, while the present-day consumerism that engulfs our society is anything but understanding what we are celebrating, I would like to comment here on a few rituals, which objectively speaking are, I believe, fundamentally important to the transmission of interpersonal security in the transitional space between parent and child, and more broadly the emotional security of the family unit. The reason I call these to current attention is that they are not based in religious or spiritual tradition per se and that taken individually, one could argue that they are the 'less important or superficial aspects' of holiday celebration that reflect no basic understanding of what we are celebrating. Here I suggest that there needs no tie to what we are celebrating, but the manner in which preparatory rituals and celebratory behaviors are carried out.
What I am referring to are what may be called 'nostalgia behaviors' or anticipatory behaviors or what the famous English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott might refer to as ‘creative playing’. Such behaviors include the setting up of the Christmas tree, the decoration of the house, the lighting of the tree, the preparation of the presents, the soft glow of the Christmas lights that dance off the tree, the bubbling of the Radko Shiny Brite bubble lights, the establishment of the village underneath the Christmas tree with the skating rink or the wishing well in the center of town and so forth. There is fundamental import in these behaviors as far the transmission of security to the child is concerned and more generally to the family unit, be it two persons or more is concerned. The importance here is not with the degree of nostalgia behaviors or the amount of decor in any one setting; it is the scaffolding and subjective sense that is present when these things are done in the home. A singular hanging of a tattered stocking would suffice. In this transitional space between two persons, there is transmission of subjective security and warmth in objective form. What is transmuted through the milieu of the decorative scene and interpersonal exchange during the creation of it is a sense of what Winnicott would call 'going-on-being'; there is a sense that this is how the world is ordered, and that things have a place that does not fall apart (in Winnicottian language, ‘that does not disintegrate’), that there is a reliable safe-haven where dreams and hopes are alive; the lighting of the tree and so forth.
While for many, and rightfully so it is important to consider why we are celebrating a holiday such as Christmas, it is important to not confuse superficial consumerism with the more special transmuting behaviors of the holiday preparation. In fact, the two can share common form for the infant and child in the sense of the manger, the story of the three kings, and how 'baby Jesus was born.' What is important for the child, in my estimation, is that the behaviors are integrated and balanced. The manger is but one part of a larger scene of warmth and security. The church with the steeple in the middle of town is another. But what is transmitted to the child, most fundamentally is not a belief one way or another, but rather a sense of security and going-on-being (Winnicott) that allows them to experience ‘intersubjectivity’ with others and recognition of their own internal state—read: a definable personality identity—
against the backdrop of the town, the figurines, the stocking, the fireplace, or even a small Christmas tree and the anticipation of what is to come, be it small or large. These times and the interpersonal and physical space in which they are created are 'safe-havens' or 'secure bases' which we can come back to, time and again, to experience the joys of security, comfort, and that magical warmth in which we are free to omnipotently feel that ‘all is well’ and ‘will be well’ underneath the Christmas tree in the small town, where there are homes and a church, and a frozen pond and a town center where people come to sing carols. Such ritual behaviors and traditions are critical for our continued going-on-being and the healthy development and maintenance of a sense of self, especially in the current fragmented modern day reality where, as one of my X friends H. Stupak described it with remarkable clarity of expostion thusly:
“Phones and screens everywhere. Endless delivery trucks approaching in the dark. Drones. Unbelievable government censorship and propaganda. Pronouns. Anyone else feel like we have entered some sort of dystopian Ray Bradbury story?”
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