“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” – Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas
Charlie Brown immortalized the uncanny dissonance of the holiday blues in this classic Christmas tale. I first heard about the holiday blues when I was working at a psychiatric hospital in Cambridge and my colleague said to me in September: “These beds will all be full by the beginning of December”. I thought it was strange that at a time centered around happiness, fellowship, harmony and family, people find themselves lonely, sad, depressed — even suicidal. Clearly, the holidays are laden with expectations – expectations that have been built upon a foundation of years of nostalgia or, alternately, disappointment.
While some of us look forward to the holidays, others dread the impending stress that comes from overdrinking, overeating and over consuming. Many of us remember those who are no longer with us — family members who have passed, marriages that ended, and relationships that have been severed. Holidays propel us back into old family conflicts which faithfully resurface each year, which can deepen our sadness and unease.
Here are some ways you can lighten your expectations and ease the holiday blues. They are a holiday offering for you. Pick and chose as you like, rather than another dreaded list of to-do’s that you must get done by the year’s end.
Reassess your priorities
As the year closes, we feel pulled by an array of demands: attending office parties, cooking elaborate meals, traveling and spending beyond our means. What would actually bring you the most pleasure this holiday? Make a list of your holiday “shoulds”. Get inspired by Ellen Burstyn’s “should-less” days. See if you can cross off at least two or three items from your list.
Then, make a new list – of things that will bring you meaning and pleasure. How can these two lists be combined? For instance, if you want to reconnect with old friends but you are planning to cook a complicated meal to impress them, what if everyone brought a dish, instead? Collaborate with family and friends by letting them know how you feel about the holidays – you may be surprised to find they feel the same way – and together, find creative ways to ease holiday anxiety.
Give to those who need it most
The old adage is true: there is nothing that makes you feel less alone and less unworthy than to help others. For years, when my children were young, we would volunteer in a soup kitchen on Christmas day. The holidays offer so many opportunities to give to the community. And you will find that your act of altruism has the benefit of making you feel better, while also creating a sense of meaning that cuts through the superficialities of the holiday season. Here’s a list of possibilities for helping others in New York, or to find opportunities in your area, a quick internet search should lead you in the right direction.
Surround yourself with your family of choice
Many of us do not spend the holidays with those that we love the most. What I seek in the holidays is gathering, conviviality and warmth – a beating back against the cold through the fellowship of others. Create a place where you can be with those who accept you, free from judgment and awkward political conversations. If you feel isolated, far from your family, have a gathering of “the exiled and orphans.” This kind of fellowship brings great solace during the holidays.
Find some time for spiritual introspection
When I lived in Jerusalem, despite being Jewish, every year I would pick a different church to attend midnight mass. Regardless of your religion, being in a room where songs are sung, candles are lit and humans gather together can be uplifting, helping you to shift your focus from doing to simply being.
How are you handling the holidays this season? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.