By Lisa Regula Meyer
It’s officially into the holiday season, as Thanksgiving is done (and maybe even cleaned up by now) and we’re on the countdown to Christmas/Yule/Kwanzaa/Chanukah/Festivus/whatever other winter holiday your family might celebrate. If you’re like most Americans, that means that it’s time to eat, because what better way to remember the difficulties and scarcity of our ancestors at this time of year than by indulging in the excess that they lacked, right? It makes perfect sense to me, but then I’m the person who was raised with the idea that food=love. To show that you care for your spouse and kids, you cook a good dinner. To show support after a birth or death, you brought a dish to your friends. To show that you welcomed your extended family, you laid out a scrumptious buffet. My family’s German; it’s what we do.
So we have a month-long orgy of office parties, school celebrations, family get-togethers, neighborhood festivities, and customer/client appreciation events. And for most of these, food plays a part, if not the central, role. And to top it off, there’s the gift-giving of food items, stockings filled with treats, and traditional foods and baked goods that make the holidays a time to remember and reconnect with those we love. It’s no wonder that the New Year- the end to the holiday festivities- ushers in so many diets and resolutions to lose weight.
What is it about the holidays that make us focus so heavily on all of this food? Why do humans make so many ties with emotions and food? That topic on its own has been one of considerable research and writing, but I’m here weighing in one more time on this very relevant discussion. Quite simply, food nourishes our body, while emotions nourish our soul. Our family, our experiences, our memories, our friends, all are sources of very strong memories. Those memories, and the people and things associated with them, make us who we are. They form the building blocks of our personality and shape our psyche, in the same way that our food and the nutrients that it contains shape our physical self.
Need a boost to help you through the day after a heavy work out? You can call a friend or get a dose of caffeine, maybe even combine the two and have coffee with a friend. Feeling under the weather and not up to par? Have a bowl of your favorite soup or stay in bed and snuggle with your favorite person. Missing family that’s flung across the miles (or you’re just not getting enough melatonin with the shortened daylight hours)? Fix a batch of Grandma’s famous cookies until you can make the trip to visit everyone.
Let’s face it, emotions take energy in the same way that running a race takes energy, and we humans aren’t too good at distinguishing one type of energy need from another. Emotional eating (grabbing physical energy when we need emotional energy) happens far more often than most physicians or therapists think is healthy, and has serious consequences for both mind and body. The opposite (grabbing emotional energy when physical energy is needed) is less common, but also happens for some people, so I’m told.
No matter what, the holidays are a very emotional time for many people. The stress of increased obligations and demands on our time, possible financial concerns with gift purchases and increased bills, travel related anxiety, reminders of the family and friends that are no longer with us, and the tension involved with seeing more people than we typically do- all of those things take a toll on us. Be honest, how many of you have felt like you need a vacation just to recover from winter break? Of course, these are all emotional demands, and a vacation, or even a weekend staying in, is a great way to replenish that emotional energy. There are also physical demands on our energy like shoveling snow, playing hard with kids more than usual, fighting off or recovering from illnesses, and the like, that also come into play. Put all this together, and add in the fact that our brains so heavily tie together sensory information with our memories, and it’s no wonder that the last month of the year tends to be so food-centered for so many people.
Now, I realize that this is by no means any kind of scientifically vetted or reviewed treatise on the subject, and I’ll be totally up front that this is just my ramblings, so take it for what it is. All that being said, I’m saying this because it needs to be said (for myself and others). This holiday, try to take a minute and reflect on whether you’re looking for emotional or physical energy, and imagine if maybe there’s a better way to remember Great Aunt Danelda than making her shortbread recipe. You might surprise yourself at your ingenuity, have a good laugh over the time she ate an entire head of lettuce while cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and your waist might thank you, too. Who knows, maybe you’ll even start a new family tradition of trading letters instead of plates of candy.
And finally, Dear Reader, have a cookie; I just baked them today.