Post title image: The Power of a Pause

The Power of a Pause

How the Christmas break became a form of collective reflection.

Desk Notes

In 1659 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to ban Christmas.

From then onwards, if anyone in New England was found to be “observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labour, feasting, or any other way” they would be subject to a five shilling fine.

At the point the puritans snapped, Christmas was essentially a time of mass celebration. The closest analogue would probably be Freshers Week at a UK university. Bad behaviour was the name of the game. Singing. Drinking. Gambling.

The state of the bacchanal even led the exasperated Hugh Latimer to write “men dishonour Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides.*”

That wasn't very ChristmassyThat wasn't very Christmassy

This changed in the 19th century as Christmas entered its next iteration - a time to get together with family. Think of the Night Before Christmas, or the Cratchit family gathering round the table for dinner.

And I think that’s kind of where we still are today. The Christmas break as a time for family and friends has had a very good run.

But I think a new meaning is beginning to emerge - the time around Christmas and New Year is becoming a time to pause and reflect about ourselves.

This Christmas was the first time - since Covid - it fell on a Monday. Similarly with New Year's Day. This fact, I think, is important. 

Coupled with the changes in working patterns for many post-pandemic, it meant that many were travelling the week before, turning that pre-Christmas week into a sort of hybrid period of travel, where things naturally began to slow down.

The same looks to be the case for this week, supercharged by the fact that schools are yet to return.

This has meant essentially a three week pause - one week fully switched off, and two hybrid weeks - and it seems to me that people generally use that extended period of time to reflect on themselves.

This isn’t exactly a new thing. The concept of the new years resolution attests to that - plus Scrooge himself goes on one of the most epic voyages of self-discovery in the canon.

New year, new ScroogeNew year, new Scrooge

But now it seems we’re going further, with the Christmas break becoming a forced removal from our routine: giving us the chance to think anew about who we are, what we do, and why we do it.

In this way, we can think of late-December/early-January as a form of collective dis-habituation.

Next month a new book is coming out - written by Dr Talia Sharot and Cass Sunstein - called Look Again.

The villain of the book is habituation - the psychological phenomenon where we get more used to how things are over time.

The thrill of a feature in a new car becomes, within weeks, taken for granted.  A new painting in a home soon becomes part of the background, no matter how expensive.

Drake knowsDrake knows

At best, this makes us comfortable, but limited. At worst, it means we stay in sub-optimal situations much longer than we need to.

In the book (and on the podcast), Sharot argues in favour of disrupting our routines - whether personal or professional - whenever we can, to break free of habituation, and look anew at our lives and work.

Given Ashore is all about stepping away from the everyday, and using the power of that disruption to do your best, most creative work - I’m not exactly a difficult sell on this point.

But it can be difficult for each of us to - in practice - find those moments to look anew.

So we’ve all unthinkingly conspired - as a collective - to use this period as a time for all of us to do that together.

Ultimately this is a good thing. We generally don’t take enough time to step back and think about the big picture.

As the line between work and life gets more and more opaque, and the ability to work flexibly means fewer people taking a big block of time off over the summer- we need to find the pressure release valves where we can.

And I think this might be where we’ve accidentally settled - undergoing this mass dis-habituation experiment at the same time every year - as the meaning of Christmas mutates once more.

There’ll still be time for the parties, and family, but also some time for yourself. To step away, and then, when you return, to see things anew.

I think even the good people of 17th century Massachusetts might like the sound of that.


*both of these quotes were found via Stephen Nissenbaum’s brilliant book, The Battle for Christmas

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