GRAND FORKS — The winter holidays come in two clusters with two intentions. The December holidays are about where we’ve come from while the January holidays are about where we’d like to be.

December is especially rich in nostalgia. Our December holiday is Christmas because we come from that tradition. Christmas is well known as a holiday of light, and so are other religious holidays of the season. Historians and folklorists tell us that this tradition is ancient, probably originating in the Roman Saturnalia, but possibly older than that. This would be no surprise, since Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, when human beings are eager to lighten things up. I think that might be the reason that the holiday is weighted with ethnic and religious traditions that no longer have a central place in our lives, except at Christmas.

Christmas at our house this year provides an example. There were just the two of us. And three cats. Decorating was minimal. Music was constant. And cooking took up a lot of time. I managed to produce a pretty good Christmas dinner, a German pot roast or “sauerbraten.” This is a recipe that presents many opportunities for failure, beginning by searing the roast to seal in the juices and preparing a marinade of vinegar and spices, heavy on cloves, of course. The roast must be turned twice daily and each turning presents a risk of spilling the marinade or dropping the bowl. The challenge ramps up the fifth day, when the roast comes out of the refrigerator and goes on the stove, with added ingredients, and is cooked very, very slowly, a preamble to the flurry that comes at the end.

This last stage of a sauerbraten involves cutting the acidity of the marinade by adding a range of sweeteners, including a splash of red wine, a handful of white raisins and a mixture of sugar and flour carefully browned on the stove. “Be very careful doing this,” the recipe warns, lest the sugar burn and you have to start again. We got the mix into the pot without adverse incident, and the gravy thickened up nicely. Impatience nearly spoiled the dish at the last minute, though. I added the sour cream just a little too early, so it clotted a bit rather than whisking nicely into the liquid.

Just as I congratulated myself on a successful Christmas dinner I realized I had forgotten to bake the potatoes, even though they’d been resting in plain sight during the four-hour process of cooking the sauerbraten. We effected a rescue by boiling egg noodles and toasting thick slices of bread to sop up the gravy, which was delicious. Thus, we paid homage to our central European heritage — topped off with carols sung by the Vienna Boys Choir, auf Deutsch, naturlich!

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The January holidays are different altogether. There’s nothing nostalgic about New Year’s Day although it has religious significance as the Feast of the Circumcision and the eighth Day of Christmas, which ends on Jan. 5, the day before Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. Rather than solemn observances with religious meaning, however, the New Year’s holidays are Party Time! The days are lengthening, and the difficulties of the previous year are cast aside with abandon, at least in most years. The last year was a year apart in many ways: in politics, for sure, but more especially because of the COVID pandemic. The end of the year brings hope that the pandemic will abate as vaccinations proceed. Then life should return to normal. Or maybe not.

COVID has changed the way we do things, from reforming the election system to allow widespread voting by mail to changing the way people interact both while working and while pursuing social connections. Almost every institution wonders about the long-term impacts of these changes, the newspaper business among them. The same pressing issues face higher education. What is the future of online learning? Of on-campus learning? How will societal norms change? Since the end of World War II, residential campuses have been critical to American society, not least as a way to broaden the gene pool. I marveled as I addressed Christmas cards at how many of our friends had met spouses at the University of North Dakota.

The second great holiday of January, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (the third Monday of January), invites us to look forward, as well. While it commemorates an historic figure, the holiday is meant to emphasize the American promise of “liberty and justice for all.” These dreams that have not been realized in the United States. Instead, it seems we have given them up.

So, while Christmas is a time for reflection and appreciation, the January holidays are a challenge to us as individuals, especially this year, to our basic values as individuals in a free country bound together by land and by law. It should be every American’s resolution to work to repair the damage to our country and reach again for the dream of a more perfect union.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.