Holidays: Inherent Joy vs. Circumstances

Background: Happy Chanukah?

Chanukah is arguably one of the easiest Jewish holidays to enjoy – no Yom Tov obligations, barely any religious obligations at all, and a great excuse to eat fried food. Religious Jews and secular Jews love it. (Which is ironic because it’s about a war between the religious and secular Jews, but ok, better to have Jews agree on something for once…) In the past, I liked Chanukah, although it was never my favorite holiday. This year, I find myself ranging from indifferent to actually kinda hating it. The parties are either geared for small children or singles, with nothing in between. The theme of miracles feels insulting at the moment. I’m not trying to be a grinch, but I’m completely over this holiday.

I need to do a Chanukah-Grinch version of this with my own face… “Rosie :: A Grinch” by RosieFbxAK is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

[Side note, I took down my previous trying-not-to-be-a-Chanukah-grinch post because I decided it was too TMI and too NSFW even for my standards. I haven’t decided if I’ll repost a cleaned-up version]

Today’s thoughts are G-rated. Between my own feelings about Chanukah, reading blog posts, and reading some of the threadjacks on Corporette (not that a bunch of rich female lawyers with strong opinions on ankle pants represents me at all, but as an internet community, I find Corporette bizarrely fascinating. Anyway, more on this later), it got me thinking about holidays generally. In particular, about this question:

Do we enjoy holidays because the holidays have an inherent joy about them? Or do we enjoy holidays because the circumstances in which we celebrate them give us joy?

Where exactly is the joy? Photo by David Orsborne:

The Holiday Assessment

To answer that question, I decided to look back at holiday enjoyment over the last few years. I’ll go by Gregorian Calendar year because it’s easier for non-Jewish readers to follow and also because it’s easier to track the impact of the pandemic and other life-happenings. Except for Thanksgiving and New Year’s, I’m leaving out non-Jewish and secular public holidays. For this purpose, I’m looking at happy holidays only. Yom Kippur is included, because despite being a fast day, Yom Kippur is considered a happy holiday. However, Tisha b’Av is not included because you’re basically commanded to have a terrible day. And I’m starting at 2020 because I don’t remember enough of which year was what prior to 2020.

With that, I present a tabular look of JYP’s holiday experience:


HolidayJYP’s Experience AssessmentComments
PurimAwesomePurim seudah (meal) at the Rabbi’s house was fantastic! Purim was early March 2020. Little did we know…
PassoverBadEven aside from the disappointment of not being able to spend Passover with family in person, this sucked. Husband managed his COVID and Pesach OCD anxieties badly and turned into a complete asshole.

I strongly contemplated never celebrating Passover with Husband again.
ShavuotGoodPre-pandemic, Shavuot was not a holiday I enjoyed because I’m not a scholar. But Tikkun Leyl Shavuot over Zoom, with ability to join (and subtly leave when necessary) various lectures and musical performances around the world was a massive improvement.
Rosh HashanahAwesomeZoom services + Outdoor family meals + the surprise Rosh Hashanah Saturday night dance party from the neighbor’s backyard COVID wedding made for a surprisingly awesome holiday, even with RBG’s death in the background.
Yom KippurMehZoom services. I feel like services were ok, nothing special. But expectations were so low for Yom Kippur 2020 that this was fine.
SukkotGoodBetter than I expected. Nothing about the arrangements for this holiday made any logistical or halachic sense, but it was nice at my parents’ and they seemed to appreciate out company.
Simchat TorahHilariousSince we couldn’t go to synagogue and dance with the Torah, Mom (in typical Mom fashion) found a little Torah toy and made us dance around outside on the deck with it. No, we were not drunk. (Maybe a little, actually. I don’t remember…) Yes, it was stupid. But it was so stupid, it was hilarious.
ThanksgivingUghThanksgiving 2020 had the potential to be good. We’d reached the acceptance phase of 2020 holiday grief, and took advantage of Zoom to schedule family calls with multiple sets of family members we wouldn’t ordinarily see. We’d ordered nice catering.

The problem was that I wound up with an awful migraine Thanksgiving Day. 3+ Zoom calls in one day with a migraine is torture.
ChanukahMehI don’t remember much about Chanukah 2020. I think we had a Zoom call with the in-laws and the niblings at one point. Which wasn’t amazing, but it beat being in person with the in-laws and niblings.
New Year’sUnremarkableHonestly, I don’t remember a damn thing about New Year’s. Husband and I probably spent it ignoring each other.
A meaningless chart image to break up my data tables. Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich:


HolidayJYP’s Experience AssessmentComments
PurimBlahIt wasn’t all bad (the virtual Megillah reading/Purim musical we attended was quite good). But I felt too depressed for this holiday
PassoverPretty GoodWe learned from last year and Passover prep was significantly less disastrous. Also, the Zoom seder was a lot better.

Really the only bad part of Passover 2021 was that I found myself interviewing for too many jobs and observing Passover while still working at then-current job and attempting to study for the certification exam (which I ultimately failed), which was quite stressful. But I brought all that upon myself.
ShavuotAwesomeZoom learning (a win from 2020) + cheese fondue = fabulous Shavuot!
Rosh HashanahGoodIn person services + family shenanigans. No Saturday night dance party this year, but it was pretty good overall.
Yom KippurGood, but…My Yom Kippur sermon was great! But the lead up to that was a complete disaster. My impromptu Jonah reading (literally, the organizers accidentally left Jonah off the schedule and I was asked last minute to chant it) was quite good though.
SukkotAmazingWent away to a Sukkot retreat of sorts and it was absolutely amazing!
Simchat TorahLousyDancing was extremely subdued/nonexistent, and I was just in an overall shitty mood.
ThanksgivingOkayI was in a lousy depressed mood Thanksgiving morning, but things improved later in the day once we got together with the family.
ChanukahGoodA key highlight of Chanukah 2021 was the night we went to Chanukah dinner at Hometown Synagogue. It was a well-run event with great food and most importantly, it was great celebrating a holiday as a community with food. (This is actually still not a given even in 2022 because Current Location Congregation is doing their 2022 Chanukah party fully masked without food…)
New Year’sAwfulToo much COVID, depression, regret, and obnoxious new year positivity messaging to enjoy this.
Repeating the meaningless chart image to visually break up my data tables. Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich:


HolidayJYP’s Experience AssessmentComments
PurimAwesomeTraveled out of town for it (I had another reason to travel and I just extended the trip to be away for Purim too). And even though I was spending Purim solo (Husband could have joined me, but chose not to), Purim in this out of town community was awesome! One of the best Purim parties I’ve ever been to.! It inspired this song with Timothy Price.
PassoverAwesomeIn-person Passover seder for the first time since 2019 and it was amazing
ShavuotGreatZoom learning + cheese fondue + my insanely awesome parents = great!
Rosh HashanahPretty GoodOverall, Rosh Hashanah 2022 (which I still never got around to writing about because WP deleted my draft) was good. There were some funny-in-retrospect-but-frustrating-in-the-moment mishaps, I didn’t really get much spiritually out of the holiday, and there were fewer fun family shenanigans compared to past years.
Yom KippurAwesome (really!)Ended up spending YK with out of town family away from my home congregation. I realize a “destination Yom Kippur” sounds ridiculous, but this wound up being one of the best YK services I’ve ever attended in my life.
SukkotBlahI knew Sukkot was going to be lousy and it was. This was due to not only the housing market and the state of our marriage, but also poor planning and my own crappy attitude.
Simchat TorahLacklusterDancing with the Torahs was definitely better than it was last year, but overall, this felt lackluster.
ThanksgivingPretty GoodMy expectations for Thanksgiving were low. Honestly, I had fantasies of skipping Thanksgiving entirely in favor of travel. I’m ultimately glad I didn’t, as Thanksgiving wound up being pretty nice in the end.
ChanukahTBDSo far, crappy, due to lack of plans, residual anger over cancelling vacation for nothing, and feeling no connection to the holiday miracle theme. But look, I’ll try to keep an open mind as it’s only the third day.
New Year’sTBDConsidering that the plan is to spend it in my in-laws’ basement, my expectations are pretty low. But we’ll see…


  1. Shavuot is like the only holiday with overwhelmingly positive experience 3 years in a row. Is it possible that I actually like Shavuot??
  2. I seem to enjoy the holidays a lot more when I go somewhere else that isn’t home. (Destination Sukkot 2021, Destination Purim 2022, and Destination Yom Kippur 2022 all being far better than usual)
  3. Holidays celebrated with more family members tend to be more enjoyable than holidays celebrated with just myself and Husband.


Conclusions based solely on a small sample size of biased anecdotal data are totally valid, right? Photo by Lukas:

The Adult Factor

Back to Corporette (the land of fashion-conscious wealthy female attorneys and wildly off-topic threadjack conversations): In a threadjack that I’m not even going to try to find again, a poster complained about not feeling any joy or magic about Christmas, in large part because they had so much to do before the holiday. Someone made the point that as a kid, you think there’s Christmas magic, and as an adult, you realize that you have to make the Christmas magic happen. I may not agree with Corporette on how much to spend on shoes, but I think there’s a point here. The reality of being an adult affects the holiday enjoyment experience.

Individual Experience

There’s also a lot of individual variation with this. Your tables won’t be the same as mine. For example, I feel like everything I love about Jewish holiday experience (huge groups of people getting together and socializing/eating/dancing) is something that someone who is introverted/has social anxiety would utterly hate. Even Husband, who spent all of these holidays (except Purim 2022 and Yom Kippur 2022) with me, would have a different assessment of the experience.

Also, certain traditions/observances are really polarizing. Some people adore Instagram/Pinterest-worthy holiday decor displays and some people hate it or hate the pressure to keep up. Some people passionately love gift-giving and some people hate it just as passionately.

Then there’s the associations people have with certain holidays. If you’re missing a loved one, no amount of people, media, inspirational bloggers or influencers, or Hallmark movies preaching about the joy of the holidays is going to make you feel joy.

My Answer

Back to the question – Do we enjoy holidays because the holidays have an inherent joy about them? Or do we enjoy holidays because the circumstances in which we celebrate them give us joy?

I don’t know that there is an inherent joy to the holidays. I think most of the joy is circumstances, some of which you may have control over (where and with whom you decide to spend it with, saying no to things you don’t want to do) and some of which you do not (illness, pandemic, etc.)

Discussion Time!

What do you think? Tell me in the comments or your own blog.


  1. I don’t believe there is any joy inherent in a holiday ~ it’s just a date on the calendar like a birthday or anniversary. It’s all about what you bring to and get out of the experience. I didn’t enjoy Thanksgiving much before I began spending the day with friends. I really liked this past one because we went out and I got to eat yummy steak instead of icky turkey. Then we played board games! The big family events with loads of food I dislike but feel obligated to eat are just not my thing. And having to make small talk with people I hardly know is total ick. Chanukah, otoh, is awesome now (used to be meh when I was married) because it’s generally a low key get together with only my kids and grands. I’m all about small groups and non trad food 🤩

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I so enjoy your insights… 🙂
    OK, if you want to know, I think that holidays allow us to focus our joy and expression of it in a specific way. I love Christmas because I love giving presents. I love “making” Christmas magic for my children. I can act more like a kid and nobody really cares because it is the holiday. Now, I can give gifts anytime. I can be a little silly anytime. But each holiday (even like your charts) gives us a moment to reflect on deeper aspects of this life. Honestly, I would hate to see how we might be if we did not have holidays… how the daily grind of life could stamp out Joy… Here is to Joy, to expressing Joy more…

    Liked by 2 people

    • You bring up an interesting point. We can do any of the holiday traditions and observances at any time if we really wanted to; it’s that there’s something special about doing them on a designated day of significance when everyone else is celebrating and doing them at the same time. I definitely hear you on this. It reminds me of the year I spent Purim in Israel – yes I could wear a silly costume any day, but today, everyone else was doing this too. I think you also make a good point about how holidays affect the flow and pace of normal life. Honestly, as much as there have been holidays I haven’t enjoyed, and in particular, as much as I dislike the pacing of all the Jewish holidays in the fall, it’s hard to imagine life without celebrating holidays.
      Cheers to joy! And Merry Christmas to you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, and a wonderful Chanukah for you and your family. The idea you highlight of community celebration is important, especially now as we are still dealing with COVID and after effects of being separated. It gives us a small thread to hold onto with each other.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I skimmed your boxes ‘cause I’m still trapped on this tiny phone, but I’m glad some of those holidays were righteous!! Yay! I dunno I love Christmas with a passion. But I hate new year’s. I have neoannophobia! (Bear with me, spellcheck, it’s a freaking word.) But also I have no new year’s expectations, so I just shrug the holiday off. 🙂 Happy Chanukah!! Yay!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I appreciate you attempting to read this post on a small screen! Funny enough, I tried previewing the post on mobile using that “preview” feature when I was writing this, and the tables didn’t look the bad in preview mode, but when I tried to read the published post on my phone it was awful. Ah well. Thank you for teaching me a new word. I have neoannophobia too! Wishing you a Merry Christmas!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Some View on the World and commented:
    Last weekend many of our brethren and sisters started their holiday with hopes for lights in Ukraine.

    Jewish leaders and supporters gathered in Kyiv to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights for which there are at least 24 variant spellings of the name, from Khanukka to Chanuca. The most common today being: Hanukkah.

    Jews in Ukraine waging a “war between darkness and light” lit a giant menorah on Sunday night to start the eight-day Hanukkah holiday as tens of thousands remained without electricity and Russia’s nearly 10-month war produced new victims.

    Dozens gathered in Maidan Independence Square in the capital, Kyiv, at sundown for the lighting of the first candle of what local Jewish leaders say is Europe’s tallest menorah. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko was joined by Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine Larisa Galadza as well as ambassadors from Israel, the United States, Japan, Poland and France in a ceremony organized by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine. They sang blessings under the flames of the menorah, which towered over the crowd and passing cars in frigid weather.

    In Western Europe this minor festival is one of a lot of good food and giving presents to each other. For our Ukrainian friends this year there shall not be so much to eat and drink, and dancing shall have to take place in the underground metro stations, where some prayer services also took place.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. The question makes me think of a Socratic dialogue, although Socrates would probably have said that we don’t know the true meaning of joy and that Tisha B’Av is the most joyful day. Actually, the Talmud says that Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year.

    I find between alexithymia (not understanding my own emotions) and all my “issues,” it’s hard to know what I feel about any festival. Different festivals have their own specific related issue (OCD on Pesach, social anxiety and autistic overload on Purim and Simchat Torah etc.). I think you’re right that a lot of it is down to the individual and their circumstances. Certainly Pesach is a LOT more work when you’re an adult than when you’re a child, unless you can afford to go away every year. Also, who you spend the holiday with isn’t always a choice for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point about circumstances. There’s a lot of unacknowledged privilege in this post [health, having family reasonably close by, money to travel and buy good food, not being single (granted my marriage hit some real low points during this time, but it’s not as if spending the holidays completely alone would have been a massive improvement), not having to manage caretaking responsibilities, etc] I had it easy and still struggled.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m really not in to “privilege checking.” Yes, most people in the West have some kind of privilege compared to other people in the West and especially compared to people elsewhere in the world. At the very least, we all have the privilege of being alive; most people who ever lived are dead. But I don’t think it gets us very far beyond making people feel needlessly guilty e.g. your comment about “I had it easy and still struggled.” I don’t think you had it easy! You’re dealing with real problems and you shouldn’t need to make yourself feel bad just because you don’t have literally every problem going. I much prefer a gratitude mindset of being thankful for what we have (and trying to pay it forward if possible) to pointless privilege checking.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think “privilege” and “privilege checking” are abused and misused terminologies too. And I didn’t mean to suggest that this was your intent. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the good fortune that enabled the positive holiday experiences. It was feasible [from a health, COVID risk, government COVID policy (really lack thereof), finances, etc.] for me/us to travel when I/we did, in a way that it would not have been feasible for others. I don’t really feel bad about enjoying the holidays. I do feel guilty about other complaining on this blog that I fear is more tone-deaf.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I am not so joyful this year. We decorated the tree yesterday. I didn’t do all the decor this year. I love making magic for children. My mother was interviewed at her assisted living facility and went on and on about what a horrible daughter I am. So, I am bit sour this year. The holidays are really about the people you are with or not with.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ok. So this was interesting. Although, as being not Jewish I hesitate to comment. (Seems to me – as an atheist – that all these traditions are fraught. If they have enduring personal value, then good. And if they don’t, dump asap.) In any event, never let externals rule your inner life. And a happy merry celebratory and joyful Chanukah and winter solstice to you. (We all need a break from all the crap. And that includes COVID as well as the annual cultural waterboarding of so-called Xmas music that starts up the minute Thanksgiving is done with.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear you on tradition, actually. I think there’s value to tradition but,
      1) that doesn’t necessarily mean tradition should be followed at all costs,
      2) that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t also something illogical or silly about tradition (in fact, arguably I think there is), and
      3) that doesn’t necessarily mean that if the tradition is harmful, destructive, or meaningless to you (and it absolutely can be) that you should continue doing it for tradition’s sake.

      Warm wishes to you! I wish us both (besides peace, happiness, joy, etc.) a speedy end to the incessant Christmas music – enough already! I don’t even mind the music itself, but it’s just so overplayed!


  8. I’m impressed with how much you remember of the past holidays! I guess keeping a blog record helps. I can’t remember what the last holiday was let alone what I did. For me, the commercialism stuff and the religious stuff are totally separated in my mind. This year I wasn’t feel the joy inherent in either one of them. I do believe there is inherent joy but we have to discover it. I just couldn’t feel it this December no matter how much I tried to slow down to look around. I guess I have a lot on my plate and I feel all over the place. I’m disappointed about it and there’s nothing really to be done at this point.

    I saw you had to chant Jonah–that’s one of my favorites! (if we’re talking about the fish guy. Otherwise please enlighten me!). I love how upset he was that Nineveh repented. I totally get it. I absolutely hate teaching religious education, why I volunteer, I don’t know, but I’m a glutton for punishment. I didn’t want to do it this year and hemmed and hawed until the very last moment. I randomly reread the scripture one day and saw how God asked him what was he supposed to do with all these people who don’t know their right hand from their left? And I always say I only volunteer because neither the kids nor the other teachers know their ass from their elbow. I figured God put it more politely and I agreed to volunteer. Funnily enough I got a kid named Jonah so I took it as a sign I did the right thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well you have a lot going on with retail season and wedding planning and all the drama that both of those entail! I think you make an interesting point with “I do believe there is inherent joy but we have to discover it. ” – I think stress and drama make it a lot harder to find that joy.

      Yup, same Jonah! It’s a great story. That description of Nineveh – I always liked that line about Nineveh as a city of over a hundred and twenty thousand who didn’t yet know their right from their left and many animals as well. Good for you for continuing to teach Sunday school to the kids who don’t know their ass from their elbow. You might well be a glutton for punishment (I can identify- I am on the congregation board, and I volunteered to be on it another year because I have not learned anything…) but you’re making an important contribution to the community.

      Wishing you a beautiful, peaceful, joyful Christmas holiday!


  9. Then again, if you have to chart your happiness, how happy can you be? Maybe we’re looking in the wrong places. Surely there was a day, or days, in our lives when we were truly, wildly happy that had nothing to do with religion or etched-in-stone cultural landmarks. But we don’t we celebrate those days because we instinctively know it would ruin them. We shouldn’t celebrate happiness, but just notice it, and remember it any time we feel like it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There are some people for whom charts make them happy. I do think there is a small joy when you create a visually attractive graph in Excel, you know? I will say that the chart and the limitations of anonymous blogging don’t entirely do the intensity of the emotions justice. It’s hard to put into words how ridiculously awesome and how happy I was for the particular moments over Purim 2020, Rosh Hashanah 2020, Sukkot 2021, Purim 2022, and believe it or not Yom Kippur 2022.

      There probably are/were days when we’re wildly happy that have nothing to do with holidays, occasions, or other time point markers. But I do think it can be harder to remember those times.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well that makes me feel better! Also: Maybe there should be a “Chart Day” where you set up a white board and a box of markers in the living room . . . OK maybe not.
        I don’t fully understand what happened to Christmas for me. Maybe when the kid grew up, and the season simply meant there was more traffic and denser crowds everywhere. But decades of conditioning is a powerful thing, and I still experience the occasional unexpected pang of that magical goodness. Anyway, religious beliefs aside, it’s amazing how, bottom line, it’s all about the same thing somehow.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. You’re certainly right about the individual experiences of celebrating being polarizing. I like to think that I’m somewhat enlightened among my family about all of this in that I recognize that holidays aren’t always someone’s cup of tea. But I have siblings, well actually just ONE of them, who every year (pre-pandemic) never could understand why some of us weren’t all that excited about the total experience. It can create moments of histrionics, which sort of kills that whole “joy” vibe. I love your table within the post, btw.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Don’t think any day dawns with some pre-seeded intrinsic joy. It’s what we make of the day, given everything that is happening, though we are trained to be a certain way on certain holidays, even birthdays. Most holidays here are centred around rituals, gathering of people and food… but if none of those push the happy button… it can be a challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I like how he set himself up on the hill with popcorn to see if something would happen. Anyways, Happy Hanukkah! Don’t even ask me why but I thought it was next week. I didn’t realize until I saw a sad looking menorah at the mall. People usually do decorations and I saw hardly any decorated houses this year. I hope you at least had some good food!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Holidays make me sad and then it makes me sad that I feel sad on holidays. Growing up we celebrated most holidays with family and friends. The family part seemed to dwindle as I got older but we always had friends around. When I was married with two little ones I loved the holidays just so that I could open a new experience to my kids, and I learned a lot as well. Now, the holidays are all right. I try to make the best of them. I don’t ever get my hopes up because I know that in the background is the pain of loss and all the memories that people say are supposed to make you smile. I try my best though to be supportive of others in their appreciation for the holidays. If someone loves Christmas I try to see the best in it too.

    Liked by 1 person

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