A collage of a white dog, a gray kitten, a gingerbread man, a cup of coffee, some flowers, a cookie of snowman, Christmas ornament, a board game, a black woman carrying balloons with the word "joy" written on it.


The Case for Joy

Channeling the holiday spirit in a time of political and social upheaval can be a struggle--but if we can, it's more worthwhile now than ever.

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Whether or not we celebrate Christmas, “the holiday spirit” comes for us all.

I’ve found, contrary to conventional wisdom, that it’s actually a particularly lovely thing to be Jewish in December, especially when Hanukkah falls early. With our quieter, more private celebrations out of the way, we can bask in the atmosphere of general conviviality, parties, cookies, and last-minute sales. People really do tend to be kinder and more friendly as Christmas approaches, and I feel no shame in admitting that it washes over me, too. I wake up every December 25 hoping there’s snow on the ground for the kids who got sleds from Santa.

Yet, for many, the holiday spirit brings not warmth and conviviality but sorrow, economic hardship, or loneliness. Even under the best of circumstances, the pressure to make The Holidays™ fun can wind up making them no fun at all.

And that’s all well before we consider America’s COVID losses, our disintegrating democracy, or the climate catastrophe that may make white Christmases a thing of the past. American culture conceives of the month-and-a-bit between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as a joyful time, but given the darkness of our days, we can be forgiven for finding joy to be rather thin on the ground and suspecting, moreover, that anyone who feels it might be failing to pay sufficient attention to reality.

And yet.

A year ago, with then President Donald Trump still in office and vaccines just being loaded onto trucks, I wrote about the radical act of claiming for ourselves genuine, restorative rest—that such rest is not only necessary but holy.

This year—as we, our families, the NFL, and Saturday Night Live change, curtail, or outright cancel long-anticipated plans; as the nation considers the very real possibility that the new year will see voting rights demolished and Roe v. Wade overturned; as we look out over a world in which, on many days, despair seems the only reasonable option—I’m going to suggest joy.

Not happiness—like any emotion, happiness comes and goes. Joy, on the other hand, is a state, or perhaps, a kind of nourishment. Joy sticks.

Sometimes, joy is as simple as catching a certain expression on a beloved’s face and feeling, quite suddenly, as if our heart has filled with sunlight. Joy is a deep and often quiet thing; when we allow it in, joy fills cracks and hollows that we may not have known were there. I’ve found joy playing a board game I hate with people I love. I’ve found it in tiny clubs with grimy floors when the band launches into a song that feels like every good thing that has ever happened, and for three minutes, those sounds are the universe and maybe I dance, or maybe I just stand there, feeling it fill me up. Like sunlight.

If we’re very lucky, joy comes unbidden, and we recognize it when it comes. But pretty often, joy isn’t simple at all. It’s not always easy to let joy in. Fear and anger, grief and despair can feel like safe, sturdy walls.

Very often, joy demands something like work—concentration, attention, a conscious turning away, if only for a moment, from the darkness that hovers—which is why joy, like rest, is radical. When the world is dark, what could be more revolutionary than seeing the light?

Unfortunately, despite what the wellness industrial complex would have us believe, joy is not always a choice. The barriers and filters erected by depression, anxiety, or a heart that’s overwhelmed are things that cannot just be willed away, no matter the season or your self-care routine. I’m not going to give you a how-to list, suggest a gratitude journal or less caffeine, because your experience of joy is yours and yours alone. I wouldn’t presume to know what it looks like or how to get there.

But I will say this: Joy isn’t a denial of hard truths, it’s a transcendence of them. It reminds us that we are much more than the bad things that happen to and around us, that we really are, if you will forgive me, stardust. Allowing ourselves to seek and feel joy provides a respite from the bone-deep weariness that threatens to consume, girding us for whatever might come next. Joy changes nothing but us.

May you and yours know all the blessings we wish for each other at this time of year; may you and yours know joy.

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