Two weeks into December, and I had no holiday spirit. I had no desire to decorate or to do what I have done for the last 25 years. I am not a bah-humbug person! I love the holiday season: the tree with its hodge-podge of ornaments hiding in the branches illuminated by colored lights; magic memories from my childhood; reading “The Night Before Christmas”; and the magic come newly alive in my own daughters.
That magic was never just about presents. It lay in the expectation, the surprise, and the stories, like the ones I created about each small ornament, tucked into the branches. The glass moose was grazing on the evergreens, the pink elf was watching over the skiing Santa, and the rat king was just inches away from the prince. Every ornament has a history that began from its entrance into our household, and I remember almost everyone.
But this year was different. I dreaded getting out the boxes or ornaments and mantle decor. I dreaded the holiday parties. I was not inspired by any of it. And while it may have been unusual for me, I know that the holidays are fraught for many. For example, our feelings might not match up with the ones we’re supposed to have. When our emotions aren’t congruent with our expectations and the mood we perceive around us, they feel inauthentic and out of synch. Instead of being the one time of year when everyone comes together in love and support, the holidays can throw a spotlight on a year’s worth of things left unsaid, hurtful words that should never have been said, and all the ways last year’s New Year hopes didn’t pan out. And of course, there is the nearly ubiquitous overconsumption (food, alcohol, shopping) which can create conflicts, guilt, debt, or other problems.
Expectations, Overconsumption, and Depression
In my psychotherapy practice, I often see people who don’t just dislike but hate the holidays. For some, the season reminds them of childhood Christmases when mom and dad would argue, or maybe dad fell off the roof putting on the lights because he was drunk. For others, their kids have left the nest, and all the seasonal rituals feel empty without them. And some parents make the horrendous mistake of using the holiday to announce to their kids that they’re getting divorced, leaving terrible associations for my clients. Although Christmas music and decorations dominate the month of December, holiday stress bleeds into our culture so that people who don’t celebrate Christmas are affected. Families who celebrate other holidays, or none, can feel mixed emotions around this time of year.
I work with people who are experiencing loss of various kinds during the season: loss of an elderly parent; a marital separation; a job loss. The analogy I sometimes use is that this period of their lives may be like a tree weathering a bad year. Growth rings aren’t always even; drought, disease, or just a northern exposure can affect the ring’s thickness and shape, and so the tree trunk’s straightness. In time, their lives would be like that tree, incorporating the unique patterns formed in the process of living.
Nothing is ever perfectly straight. If it was, Christmas trees would be like the artificial ones in shops decorated with perfectly matched bows and garlands. There are no broken ornaments, but also none made by a child’s hands, or passed down from grandma, or chosen together by a young couple. Finding the joy in the season doesn’t require perfection. The imperfect family, the broken ornament, or the crooked tree all offer opportunities for reflection and stories told around the fire.
This poem by Rabindranath Tagore expresses some of the complexities of the season. In living alongside the joy and sorrow it becomes easier to find meaning in a season that remembers so many stories.
He it is, the innermost one, who awakens my being with his deep hidden touches.
He it is who puts his enchantment upon these eyes and joyfully plays on the chords of my heart in varied cadence of pleasure and pain.
He it is who weaves the web of this maya in evanescent hues of gold and silver, blue and green, and lets peep out through the folds his feet, at whose touch I forget myself.
Days come and ages pass, and it is ever he who moves my heart in many a name, in many a guise, in many a rapture of joy and of sorrow.
Gitanjali, with an introduction by W.B. Yeats, Scribner Poetry, 1997.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, I came out of my funk and realized that I felt like my usual self again. Recognizing that emotions can be mixed during this time of year, allows for acceptance of feeling that doesn’t fit the season’s glitter and glam. As Tagore wrote; days come and ages pass, and enchantment joyfully plays on our hearts in the varied cadence of pleasure and pain.
If you are having difficulties coping with holiday stress, this article from APA has some good suggestions.