Newtown, the Holidays, and Our Search for Meaning


Candles.  Image courtesy of MIcrosoft.

By Julie Wu

Such a time for a massacre this has been—the holidays. This weekend, as we lit our Menorah–and, because we are an a la carte family, hung our stockings up for Christmas–I smiled and laughed and shooed away the images in my mind of murdered children.  While my children slept I lingered over their beds to watch them, and then sneaked away to pore over pictures of those beautiful Newtown first graders.  I read the stories of heroism and sacrifice, all those precious lives cut short.  And in the morning I was back to face the seasonal routine—shopping for presents, planning a Christmas party, clearing space for the tree, sending and receiving happy holiday cards. It’s hard to do it now without wondering what it’s all for.

In my adolescent, Holden Caulfield days I would wonder why people did holidays so dutifully—it seemed like a kind of brainwashing by Mattel, Hasbro, and Hallmark. It was the Christmas Industrial Complex that made adults shuffle to malls and supermarkets to buy Christmas sweaters and fancy toys and chestnuts and all the trappings of Christmas past to create–with a scented spray if you weren’t handy with a spatula–the smells and tastes, the experiences that were expected in December in a mostly Christian society. To me, it was commercialism at its worst.

It was during my very cynical adolescence that my mother told me about a fight she had had with my father, more than once, about holidays, about gifts.

When they were first married, my father didn’t take much stock in the whole schtick—birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Wedding Anniversary, Christmas. His parents had never celebrated any of these holidays and he didn’t understand what the big deal was or why he was required to go purchase things according to the calendar. My mother cried and railed. Finally she said, “If you don’t celebrate the holidays, what is life?”

She related this story to me as a lesson, but I didn’t buy it, so to speak.  How sad, I thought, that life’s meaning can be determined by such shallow, superficial things. I planned a future of greatness—I had far more important things in mind than baubles and birthday songs.  I thought my father had had the right idea and that it was too bad he was forced to cave in.  It was much later that I learned he had been an unhappy child, and that it was my mother’s vitality–her love of life, that saved him.

Since that conversation with my mother, I’ve grown up, and it turns out that I haven’t saved the world, any continents, or even a country. Instead, I have devoted much of my time to making up stories about people who don’t really exist. The rest of the time, I take care of my children, and by golly we do celebrate the holidays. For birthdays, my kids get balloons and presents. We bake a cake and sing, the way we did when I was a child. For Christmas, despite the mess and the utter inconvenience, we get a tree. And like my mother, I put far too many presents under it, though I do draw the line at Christmas sweaters.

Have I given in to Mattel, Hasbro, and Hallmark? Maybe. But I have also realized that what my mother told me when I was a teenager was a whole lot wiser than I gave her credit for. She knew something my father did not, because of his upbringing, understand: holidays and celebrations aren’t just about the moment, they’re about the past and the future. One whiff of that turkey roasting in the oven, and you’re back twenty Thanksgivings ago. Light some candles and it’s you turning ten, being served a lovingly made cake by your mom. It’s not an accident—our memories are organized, filed by associations, by sights, sounds, smells, and emotions. The more specific the cue, the more specific the memory. Snow reminds me generally of winters past, but the taste of goose will take me back to the Christmas my mother stuffed a goose with apricots, apples, and prunes and served it in our newly built dining room.

Research shows that when we feel nostalgia, we feel that life has more meaning. And when we feel that life has meaning, we are happy.  And so, in our pursuit of happiness, we search for meaning through nostalgia. And this may be one reason, other than marketing, behind the trips to the mall, the roasted turkey, the sweet potatoes, the latkes, and the egg nog.

Our craving for meaning has given us much more than annual celebrations. It has also filled our world with religions and philosophies, with stories and books, articles and blog posts. We writers fill our novels with meaning that is not so clear cut in the real world. In the stories we make up (traditional, non-nihilistic ones, anyway), everything really does happen for a reason, regardless of religion or lack thereof. We create a sense of unity—and a kind of localized nostalgia—by using themes or cues, reminding the reader of what happened earlier in the book and giving hints as to what will come. We give the story a satisfying arc and tie everything together neatly at the end. We give closure.

Perhaps this meaning, this closure is what we seek when we read the brief biographies of the slain children and teachers in Newtown. We don’t want to hear that it was all senseless. We want to hear that the children are angels in heaven now, that the world is a better place for their having lived and spread their joy for the brief time they had on Earth. We want to know that the teachers died heroically, doing the jobs they were born to do. We want to feel that this is a turning point for the country, that these children will not have died in vain, that their deaths will galvanize the country into preventing more deaths like theirs. Because otherwise this tragedy, and all the tragedies of our lives, are simply more than most of us can bear.

President Obama said of the Newtown children, “They had their entire lives ahead of them—birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own—” and in so saying, he echoed my mother’s and so many others’ point of view, that holidays and celebrations are, by dint of the meaning they impart to our lives, religious or secular, not just a marker of the passage of time or merely a money making opportunity for greeting card companies, but the cornerstone of life.

And so, this sad week, we go on, searching for meaning in religion, in stories, and in holiday tradition.  As I go ahead with celebrating Christmas with my two kids, I’ll be thinking about those twenty kids in Newtown.  I’ll remember past Christmases and picture my kids grown up. I’ll hope that, in the future, the smell of roasting turkey gives them nostalgia for a time when people figured out how to make our country safe for their children. I’ll hope that they will be happy, and that they will look forward to many years of peace.


  1. Kathy Crowley says:

    Lovely, Julie, and thanks. We all needed this.

  2. What Kathy said. A beautiful essay that speaks to what so many of us are feeling and needing at this broken time.

    Wishing you and your family peaceful and happy holidays, Julie.

  3. Beautiful, Julie. I didn’t think I could cry anymore over this. And yet… Hope does that. They are a better kind of tears. Thank you.

  4. I love this, Julie! So perfect. Not just your tender musings on the Newtown shootings, but also the parts about your family.

    “If you don’t celebrate the holidays, what is life?” — Hits me right in the heart.

    “It was much later that I learned he had been an unhappy child, and that it was my mother’s vitality–her love of life, that saved him.” — The kind of realization you could build an entire novel around.

    Thanks for a wonderful, heart-breaking and, ultimately, uplifting post.

  5. Sharon Martinelli says:

    Julie – this has so much meaning for me. I am your mother. I have done these very things and then lately I have been hearing stories that people only do this to buy the love of their children. It caused me to pause and wonder and almost become stupid for Christmas and not do the things I have always done. Reading this, especially the smells and the joy it gives me and my anticipation and delight when I got the right gift for my now grown-up, very smart children. Chris is right – you could definitely build a complete novel around the unhappy child.

    And, I really needed this to remind me that life does go on and we can find a way to honor the deceased and their families while not ruining our families with misplaced sorrow.


    • Julie Wu says:

      Sharon, thank you for this. I am so glad to have spoken to you. And if trying to make our children happy is buying their love, then–my goodness–we all do it. What better feeling is there than giving someone something they love? Merry Christmas to you. (And do see my comment to Chris about the book–it’s coming in April after ten years of work, so yes, I have thought about this issue a lot!)

  6. The whole piece is great, Julie. The spirit of holidays, the shadow of the Newtown tragedy, making it feel too soon to do any normal things.

    But this small unsung gem struck me from the middle: “Research shows that when we feel nostalgia, we feel that life has more meaning. And when we feel that life has meaning, we are happy. And so, in our pursuit of happiness, we search for meaning through nostalgia.”

    We do spend so much energy chasing magic pills of happiness. But sometimes it’s that chicken-and-egg simple. The signs and smells of things from happy days make us happy.

    Thanks for this.

  7. Leslie Greffenius says:

    Julie – everyone before me has spoken so eloquently about your beautiful – and much needed, perfectly timed – post. Thank you for writing and sharing it. Can’t wait to read “The Third Son” now!

  8. Joe Fitzgerald says: