When Holidays are Hard

Confession time: I have never been a fan of the holiday season. There, I said it. I know, what a Scrooge! Over the years, I have found Christmas time, especially, to be both overstimulating and disappointing. During his time working at L’Arche with individuals with disabilities, theologian Henri Nouwen wrote the following excerpt about his feelings around Christmas (from The Road to Daybreak):

“Everything was there to make it a splendid Christmas. But I wasn't really there. I felt like a sympathetic observer. I couldn't force myself to feel differently. It just seemed that I wasn't part of it. At times I even caught myself looking at it all like an unbeliever who wonders what everybody is so busy and excited about. Spiritually, this is a dangerous attitude. It creates a certain sarcasm, cynicism, and depression. But I didn't want or choose it. I just forced myself into a mental state that I could not move out of by my own force.”

I am sure that Nouwen and I are not the only ones who find themselves disillusioned with the holiday season. Perhaps you find yourself dreading this season, anxious about spending time with family, with the potential for disharmony or the presence of alcohol that you try to avoid. It might feel overwhelming to attend several holiday parties and convey a spirit of joy and excitement when inwardly you feel alone or depressed. You may also find yourself in the holiday season for the first time after the loss of a loved one. You may remember various memories you have with this person and feel grief that he/she will not be present this year. How can you face the holiday season without him or her? Many people experience these feelings; and they are normal. However, there are some ways we can prepare ourselves for this season and even thrive amidst the potential over-stimulation and possible increased sense of loneliness.  

1.       Lower your expectations.

My husband reminds me to do this regularly. Just because it is December does not mean that your family is going to suddenly throw off dysfunction, or that you will find love under the mistletoe or whatever else you may find in a Hallmark movie. Christmas Day does not need to be perfect, nor should you expect as much. Jesus’ birth, which we celebrate, seemed far from perfect, as there was no room for Him at the inn and his first days were in a manger where animals ate. This might bring us comfort, keeping in mind that Christ our Savior was born in such lowly conditions. He understands our loneliness and pain like no one else can.

2.       Keep gifts simple.

The American economy thrives on the holiday season, with people spending money they do not have, with advertisements promising “the perfect gift” this year for your loved ones. Overspending and shopping can definitely impact our mental health, leading to increased stress and anxiety. A key to combating this, if you do decide to buy gifts for others, is to both plan ahead and keep gifts simple. Handmade gifts are always thoughtful to receive, or a simple book or devotional that would be relevant to someone. Remember that gift-giving is not a competition or a reflection of who you are as a person. If you are a Christian, your identity is in Christ and not in what fancy gadget or electronic appliance you gift to those around you. There is no need to go overboard with spending during this season. 

3.       Take time to stop and meditate on the season.

Whether Thanksgiving or Christmas, these holidays have spiritual themes that can often be overlooked on the actual day, with all the festivities. Take time to meditate and even write a list of things that God has blessed you with, including the seemingly small things you might take for granted. The month of December is a great time to find an advent devotional, guiding you through the birth of Jesus and what His birth, life and death mean for you and your life. Keeping your mind on these spiritual aspects of the holidays can aid your emotional health by guarding your thoughts on what is true and holy, instead of what worldly influences would try to convince you.

4.       Have a plan for how much sweets and alcohol you will consume. 

With all the parties and festivities, we may find ourselves tempted with sweets and alcoholic drinks. If our habit is to cope with feelings by over-eating or drinking alcohol, it is imperative that we have a game plan for how we will approach these tempting situations. Maybe set a limit for yourself, such as one dessert at each party or zero consumption of alcohol. Practice mindful eating, only eating until you are full and being aware of how you are feeling as you consume your food. If you will be around family or friends who drink alcohol, be okay with declining and be prepared for how those individuals might respond. 

5.       Set limits on situations and people that cause you stress.

It is okay to say “no” to some parties, especially if you find yourself with a packed schedule. Similarly if you find that you must be around people that negatively impact your emotions, it is okay to step away, whether that means going for a walk, going to pick up something at the store, or tending to something in the kitchen. You are also allowed to set a verbal boundary, such as, “Your comment hurt my feelings.” However, it may be less stressful to just remove yourself from a situation or person causing you distress, as more often it has to do with them and not you. Prepare yourself mentally if you know that these types of people will be present at your functions, and set low expectations for how they will potentially talk to you or treat you, so as to avoid lashing out in anger during a gathering. Remember that your identity is in Christ and not in what a relative thinks of you or how you compare to that relative. 

6.       If possible, make plans with people that uplift you. 

If you find yourself back in your hometown, try to make plans to see people who have contributed to your spiritual life or who you just find encouraging to be around. Similarly, if you choose to not be with family for the holidays, reach out to friends who you trust and see if they are available. You could also host a gathering at your house for people you know who may be lonely, whether due to being apart from family, their family is deceased or poor familial ties with their biological family. If you find yourself afraid of potential loneliness during this season, there are always others around you who could use friendship and you could be exactly who God uses in their life! Perhaps seek to create new memories if you are struggling with missing people and experiences from the past.

Henri Nouwen continued his reflections on Christmas with the following:

“Still, in the midst of it all I saw--even though I did not feel--that this day may prove to be a grace after all. Somehow I realized that songs, music, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and many sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying ‘yes’ to something beyond all emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying ‘yes’ to a hope based on God's initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God's work and not mine. These things will never look just right or feel just right. If they did, someone would be lying. The world is not whole, and today I experienced this fact in my own unhappiness. But it is into this broken world that a child is born who is called Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, Savior.

 “I look at him and pray, ‘Thank you, Lord, that you came, independent of my feelings and thoughts. Your heart is greater than mine.’ Maybe a ‘dry’ Christmas, a Christmas without much to feel or think, will bring me closer to the true mystery of God-with-us.  What it asks is pure, naked faith.”

I pray that you each are able to meditate on the fullness of Christ’s love during this season, despite your current situation or feelings; for He is our Emmanuel, God with us.