As a teenager, I spent a lot of time at my friend, Peggy’s house. I loved her large, Irish Catholic family’s holiday traditions — decorating cookies, midnight mass, Christmas Eve smorgasbord. My secular Chinese Jewish family was not devoid of tradition — we decorated a Christmas tree, went caroling in the neighborhood, hung stockings, and ate Peking duck. But the tradition that I carried into adulthood comes from Peggy’s family. The Christmas decorations in Peggy’s house included a nativity scene, and on Christmas day, the wise men would start their journey across the living room. To maintain the sense of magic, no one could see them move, so you had to do it when no one was around. For twelve days, they traversed the living room, arriving finally at the creche on January 6th, a day known as Epiphany.
My experience of Epiphany only scratches the surface of the much deeper meaning it holds in some Christian traditions. But when I hear people talk about “January 6th” these days, they’re not referring to the 12th day of Christmas. Rather, this date has come to signify the storming of the U.S. Capitol in early 2021. For some, January 6th evokes fear of a violent insurrection attempting to overturn the results of a fair election; others may embrace it as a legitimate protest to protect our country from a stolen election. My insight, or epiphany, about January 6th is that we often use shorthand to communicate something that has a great deal of complexity and multiple meanings.
The limitations of shorthand became clear to me when my hometown of Charlottesville became a hashtag, when the layered context in which I grew up was flattened, and Charlottesville came to mean only one thing, violent White Supremacists. I recognize the importance of memorializing the conflict about confederate statues, the Unite the Right rally, and the consequent death of Heather Heyer in August 2017. I simply want to make space for multidimensional conversations that reflect our histories, our values, and our humanity.
We seldom ask what meaning something holds, what sentiments undergird a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt or what motivates someone to don a “Make America Great Again” hat. We think we know the full meaning, but most people’s thoughts and feelings exceed the space limitations of a bumper sticker or a tweet. Can we cultivate curiosity rather than assuming the complete meaning behind a slogan, a date, a name? By holding space for complexity of meanings, we can gain a more accurate picture of other human beings and maybe even find points of connection. For example, as different as people’s reactions are to January 6th, it seems to tap into patriotic feelings; and as divided as we might be over which party is the greatest danger, we are united in concern about threats to our democracy.
Yes, we need rallying cries and ways of communicating ideas succinctly, but maybe we can also create space for complexity and multiple meanings. Perhaps we can encourage each other to share, “what does January 6th mean to you?” I plan to honor January 6th by reflecting on patriotism and doing what I can to shore up our democracy. I will also make time to honor traditions, celebrate journeys, and delight in magic.
Tania Israel is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and award-winning author of Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work (APA, 2020).