Winter breaks are bizarre. I have a love-hate relationship with university breaks in general. They are nice because they are breaks (obviously) but they also emphasize how much everyone hates the university education system. Reading breaks and summer breaks are usually easier to deal with as everyone is on the same page about being stressed and figuring things out, but during the winter break, everyone knows what they will be doing — celebrating Christmas.
Growing up in a Hindu family in North India, I never celebrated Christmas. We used to have a day off from school on Christmas (sometimes we would have school the next day) and my parents would get me and my brother gifts until we were ten but that was all. Some of my friends who went to convent schools celebrated Christmas and had fêtes at school but most of us did not. The past two years of university have confirmed the suspicion I had from watching American sitcoms — people in North America go crazy for Christmas. While I understand how Christmas is a time for being with family, and for a lot of people it might be the only time that they’re able to see their families and extended families all year, the extent to which Christmas celebrations are emphasized in university settings is astronomical.
Every day for the whole of December, and even starting from late November, I see ‘happy holidays’ displayed on the bus I take back home. I know it means Happy Christmas and New Year. It means going home and enjoying time with family. It means that people are allowed to be over-enthusiastic and nostalgic guilt-free. Happiness, as I know it now, is complex: we must get rid of everything that makes us question our source of happiness to be happy. To enjoy Christmas and have ‘happy holidays,’ we must forget that we do not live in 10th century England where feasting and dancing is one of the biggest joys of life. Instead, in a world where our neighbours are not necessarily Christians, work takes a toll over our mental health for most of the year and buying and giving Christmas gifts is associated more with consumerism than Christmas itself. Though elf figurines and Christmas trees bring joy, they exclude the more ‘global’ and heterogeneous societies we live in.
The extreme focus on deriving happiness from symbolism and even imposing culture on climate — snow — excludes people like me who believed that they would have a good time in this country. When everything becomes associated with Christmas, which in my understanding is more cultural than religious, people who do not associate with this festival often find themselves anxious and unaware of what to do. When I hear every professor wishing ‘happy holidays’ and hoping that we ‘enjoy Christmas,’ I hope that I would enjoy it too, however, I do not know what to make of all the lights and snow. I associate winter breaks and New Year’s with sleeping in and watching sitcoms, so the thought that people existing in the world outside my room (my room is also a pretty significant world, not going to lie), are ecstatic and having the time of their lives in ways that I will never understand causes a lot of anxiety.
For me, anticipation is at the centre of the problem. Because Christmas is at the end of the Gregorian calendar, which also only came into use in the 16th century, it feels like Christmas is the reward for working hard the whole year. But for people who don’t do Christmas, is there no reward? No celebrations for us? Everyone in academic settings talks about how our understanding of the word is Eurocentric or just centric to western culture, but when Christmas comes around, no one wants to point it out. I respect the traditions and the nostalgia that comes with the holiday, but the sort of Christmas decorations I see around the city and in university is very centric to European understanding and traditions of Christmas. The lighting of Christmas trees, gingerbread houses, the mistletoe and Elf on the shelf are some examples of how recent some of the Christmas traditions are and also how most of these originated in Europe or North America.
Christmas is often represented as ever-present, which, to me, seems like something crucial for unity in Christian countries. The celebration itself isn't an issue, but the overemphasis and problematic symbolism is exclusionary to students at UBC who don't celebrate Christmas.