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(HOST) December is a complicated time for commentator Bill Shutkin, and it’s not just a matter of trying to figure out what to buy for Uncle Jim.

(SHUTKIN) December’s a very existential time for me. My birthday’s in December, so as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to approach the month with a bit of trepidation. And something
about the short days and long nights adds to the unease.
Being at the end of the year doesn’t help either. Finality.

For some reason, I always hear Wallace Stevens in my
head, those last lines of “Sunday Morning”:

And, in the isolation of the sky
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

It’s my birthday. I should be soaring, but somehow, having just passed forty in the season of the solstice, it feels more like a
free fall.

But it’s not just my birthday that makes me think on the meaning of life this time of year. It’s also the onset of what we now politely call “the holidays.”

I grew up Jewish in a largely gentile community. My parents, neither of whom was very devout, couldn’t quite figure out what do with Christmas and so they did what most red-blooded Americans did in the 1960s: they bought a Christmas tree. They did it for their kids. They didn’t want us to feel left out.

Meanwhile, we also lit Hanukkah candles for eight nights, the two traditions living awkwardly side by side, neither one of them fully embraced, or understood.

Fast forward a few decades and I find myself in a similar situation, but with a twist. I married a non-Jew who, like me, can only be regarded as a secularist but who, come the season, insists on having a tree. She claims it’s for the benefit of our two young children, but I think she does it for herself. I’m now part of the ritual, striking out each early December, saw in hand, to the nearby tree farm to cut the perfect Balsam. So much for my
tree hugger status.

There’s no way around it: this time of year forces me to ask some big questions: Who am I, Jew or gentile? And is it really the parent in me that participates in the rite of this season or, like my wife, the child within the parent who’s reminded unfailingly that Decem-
ber is the month of the longest darkness, that with each tree I cut down I’m losing something, another year?

I think I’m beginning to realize that my annual bout with existen-
tialism is actually a birthday present disguised as anxiety. It’s the time when I receive the gift of reaffirming my own humanity – the connection to my past, to others who are different from me and to the light that always shines brightest in the darkness.

This is Bill Shutkin wishing you a peaceful holiday and happy New Year.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at M.I.T. He spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.

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