Originally for the Daily Camera, Nov 21, 2022
Last night, with an appropriate dose of pomp featuring the Boulder Philharmonic, the Boulder Ballet, Downtown Boulder’s own Freezie (the snowman), and the jolly man himself (Santa, not me), hundreds of thousands of colorful and dramatic lights were “switched on” along Pearl Street for Light Up the Holidays. A little over a week earlier, we joined the Boulder Chamber in a Veterans Day celebration, illuminating the Boulder Star on Flagstaff Mountain, kicking off a season of holiday traditions.
It’s no mistake that these two events center around light, like the menorah in the Jewish tradition, the end of fasting during Ramadan in Islam and the Hindu celebration of Diwali among many others. These winter holidays serve as a reminder that the sun will eventually return the warmth we once knew. The symbol of light ties us to something bigger than the moment. Connection to the past and future – seasonally or generationally – is an important part of holiday traditions. Such rituals are a form of self-care and are important to our mental health. Reliability and repetition can provide a salve against the anxiety of an unpredictable world. Holiday traditions can anchor us to family and provide a sense of belonging. Many traditions include an element of remembrance at the end of a natural, or calendar cycle. This reflection can help us create a coherent autobiographical narrative – a hallmark of mental health. Even the tradition of gift-giving has proven psychological benefits, maintaining networks of reciprocal relationships.
The strong sensory components of the holidays – the decorative lights, the smell of pine and gingerbread, the sound of the Nutcracker, and the taste of eggnog – are all indicators that this is a special time of year.
Of course, at times holiday traditions do have a dark side. The stress of obligation and expectation, the reminder of loss and the passing of time. Just as traditions can create a sense of belonging, they can also highlight or expose a lack of connection to family or community. Of course, the first holiday season after the loss is acutely painful. The pandemic, increased social media use and other isolation factors have only compounded these negative impacts. Though many time-honored traditions have been altered or lost in recent years, it is important to remember that every tradition had a beginning. The Boulder Star was not a thing in 1946, but it was in 1947 and it has been every year since.
The important post-pandemic conversation about rebuilding in more intentional and thoughtful ways can certainly apply to our holiday traditions, as individuals and as a community. Traditions, ideally express our values. The holidays can reconnect us to belonging, community, compassion, generosity, joy, and to spirituality. Everyone will find meaning in different traditions for unique reasons. For many, a powerful aspect of holiday traditions is gratitude. Expressing a thankful appreciation for what we have is a reminder that much of the goodness in our lives is at least partially outside of ourselves. This can strengthen one’s connection to community, nature or a higher power. There is a well-documented link between gratitude and well-being which can also extend to the object of grateful appreciation.
Many of our longstanding traditions have now returned, and some future traditions are finding their origin stories. I invite you to come make some of your own memories and traditions downtown this holiday season through a multitude of free community events and I wish you all the meaning, gratitude and joy that this magical time of year has to offer. Learn more at DowntownBoulderHolidays.com.
If you or a loved one need mental health support this holiday season, you can connect with Mental Health Partners‘ Community Health Worker team by calling (303) 545-0852 or emailing CommunityOutreach@mhpcolorado.org. You can also visit MHP’s website for a few simple holiday stress management tips. Mental Health Partners is the community behavioral health provider for Boulder and Broomfield counties, serving the community for 60 years.