In December 1983, I came home from my freshman year of college. My mother had died the previous May, and my father was trying to make a nice Christmas for his seven children. When the Christmas tree toppled over, he told us to pack up our warm clothes because he couldn’t stand to stay there. We spontaneously jumped in the Suburban and drove ten hours, to West Yellowstone, Montana for a snowmobiling trip. Despite the fact that it was well below zero in that part of the country, I realize now that my dad was attempting to deal with his depression in a helpful and creative way.
Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Years, you’re bound to have feelings of disappointment, alienation, and tension around the holidays. Emotions vacillate due to stress created by crowds, traffic, and extra houseguests. Fatigue results from the combination of overeating and drinking, and getting less exercise. Unrealistic expectations, financial demands and constraints, and new family configurations (due to divorce, death, marriage, blended families or empty nest) all may add to unpleasant emotional feelings during the holidays.
People try to deal with these demands by drinking alcohol, eating too much, and placing more demands on themselves to ensure the holidays are the best ever. They falsely believe that spending more money and making more elaborate plans will create happier feelings. It does seem true that happy people get happier this time of year, but sad, stressed out, and lonely people feel worse. I’ve listed some questions that might be important to ask yourself, and I’ve made some suggestions for making this a more peaceful time of year:
How am I going to take care of myself?
I would suggest you memorize the following sentence and use it frequently: I give myself permission to……. If you’re not up to having Christmas at your house, or if your in-laws make you crazy, set limits. It’s also important not to force yourself to be happy, or to deny sadness. Allow yourself to grieve the melancholic feelings this time of year brings up, and give yourself permission to tell others you are feeling this way. Talk with people about loved ones who aren’t with you anymore – this keeps their memory alive. In addition, you might consider the help of a therapist to help you sort out feelings and deal with troublesome issues. Make sure you are getting lots of sleep and light, even though winter brings limited hours of sunshine. Exercise is one of the best ways to take care of your self since it burns calories and reduces stress simultaneously. When it comes to shopping, I don’t enjoy fighting crowds and traffic. I’m not one who has to see and touch everything before I make my purchasing decisions; therefore I love to shop via the internet. This is a personal choice however, since some people truly do enjoy this aspect of the holiday season. Another suggestion for those who hate to fight crowds and traffic is to purchase gift cards.
Who am I going to give my time and energy to?
Take charge of your calendar and of those you want to spend time with. Prioritize, and let go of all the other parties. Feel free to eliminate unimportant traditions and create new ones. When our children were toddlers my husband and I would drive them around, looking at holiday lights. We used this time to drop off Christmas gifts to friends if they were home. If they weren’t there, that was their loss….they didn’t get to see us or get the present we had. It was silly and spontaneous and an important memory for our children. And who says you have to send cards or put lights all over your house? Stick to doing only those things that bring you enjoyment. My husband hates putting up outdoor lights, so the kids and I give him permission not to do it. Stop pressuring yourself to decorate the inside of your house if you don’t want to. Maybe this is the year to put up a small Charlie Brown Christmas tree with a strand of lights and no ornaments, or to hang a wreath on your door and light a festive candle. If the thought of baking stresses you out, pick up semi-prepared food to serve company.
How am I going to make the holidays meaningful?
Rather than decorating or shopping, the day might be better spent snowshoeing, building a snowman with the kids, or taking in a movie. If traditional Christmas music is grating on your nerves, try something classical, choral or country. Perhaps taking in a quiet Advent church service or helping out in a soup kitchen will fill you with a sense of awe and gratitude. One of my favorite things to do is to set aside a specific time to read Christmas cards. When cards arrive, I toss them in a basket. But later I will put on my slippers, sip some tea by the fire, and enjoy catching up with old friends via their photos and newsletters.
What are my expectations?
Each holiday is different, so don’t base expectations on past holidays. Put less emphasis on one day and more on the season. And don’t beat yourself up for feeling empty. There is always a discrepancy between the way relationships are, and the way we are led to believe they should be by the media. Examine the significance you assign to holidays: Ask yourself what the holidays mean to you and your family. If you feel stress or conflict, it could mean your expectations are unrealistic.
Who am I going to give my money to?
Commercialism can make you feel that those you buy for will only feel loved if you purchase whatever is being advertised. Years down the road, people don’t remember what you bought them, but they remember how you made them feel and the time you spent. Make a list, stick to it, and stay out of the stores once you’re done, because you will always be tempted to purchase more.
People should be aware that most feelings of despair around the holidays do not last. Holiday disappointment is a part of normal life and a sign that you are alive – being human means we get to face some hard times. However, people should be aware that there is a difference between the “holiday blues” and true depression:
Pay particular attention if you are having trouble sleeping (too little or too much), eating (too little or too much), if you have hopelessness, a sudden loss of pleasure in things you once enjoyed, thoughts of suicide, difficulty concentrating, body pain that doesn’t respond to treatment, behavior that is more agitated or slowed than normal. These are signs of more severe depression. The good news is that depression is very treatable. Eighty to ninety percent of people can be helped by things such as therapy (including light therapy), medication, and exercise. If you are feeling any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor, friends, clergy, or a counselor.
*Originally published in the Columbine Courier December 2006