For many people, holidays like Christmas are a time of joy, connection and celebration. But, let’s face it, not everyone likes Christmas. Whether it is your friend, your loved one, your neighbour, or even you yourself, there are some who are finding Christmas hard this year.
So what helps, when the holidays are hard rather than happy? That might be different for each person, depending on their situation, needs and personality. Each of us needs a personalized plan for intentionally addressing the hazards of the holidays and adding layers of self-care. Here are four categories of strategies that you might want to draw from.
Keeping things the same
Part of what makes the holidays special are those annual rituals, events and symbols that add meaning and connection. Whether lighting advent candles, or trekking out to find a tree every year, it can be helpful to keep the traditions alive even if you have to push yourself to participate.
Similarly, daily routines such as consistent mealtimes, bedtimes and regular exercise help stabilize our moods and emotions, and are particularly important to keep up during the holidays, which is when we are most likely to let them go.
Changing things up
This year might be the time to start new traditions and rituals that reflect the new family realities, or your changing personal needs. For example, you might find a way to remember those who can’t be with you by adding a special ornament to the tree, or arranging a visit to the cemetery.
Sometimes doing good self-care over the holidays requires changing some long-held traditions. Maybe instead of spending three days sleeping over at the in-laws and enduring conflict and tension, you plan a 1-day visit. Or, perhaps this is the year to skip the painful visits all together and book a ski holiday instead.
Finding new ways to add meaning to the holidays might include serving Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter, or buying goats or chickens from World Vision for those in need rather than fruitlessly shopping for gifts for relatives who already have everything.
This year, you might find yourself reflecting on different aspects of the Christmas story. In happier years past, the joy of Jesus’ birth might have been central to your celebration. But if this year, joy feels out of reach, perhaps you might find yourself drawn to other elements of the Christmas story. You might experience the waiting and longings of the advent season, or be struck by the poverty and alienation of the Holy Family in the stable, or resonate with the Holy Family’s anxious flight into Egypt. Authentic spiritual experiences that reflect the reality of our circumstances and emotional states can be far more healing than faking or avoiding them altogether.
When the busyness gets to be too much or the social obligations too intense, it can be helpful to build in ways and times of slowing down or being alone. Pacing oneself can make anxiety or depression more manageable during the holidays. Planning exit strategies such as traveling with a second vehicle are vital so you can react when family tensions rise or when anxiety becomes heightened.
Ensuring that there is down-time that refreshes might mean getting into nature for a hike or cross-country skiing. Planning some time to retreat, or adding spiritual practices such as daily advent readings can help you build in personal time for reflecting and replenishing your emotional and spiritual resources
When things are hard, isolation can make things even worse, particularly during the holidays. Many people recognize the value of finding at least one person who gets it; who understands at least a bit of what they are going through. Being able to be emotionally honest and authentic with your immediate family or a close friend can help, particularly if you feel the need to paste on a smile for others. Planning ahead to schedule a tea with a friend or a session with a therapist can ensure you have support in place for key times or events.
Connecting with your values, your faith, and the reason for the season can help you clarify what you want or don’t want to include in your experience of Christmas this year.
With some planning, intentional adjustments, and lavish doses of self-care, holidays like Christmas can include moments of joy, connection and celebration, even for those who find the holidays hard.
This blog contains excerpts from When the Holidays are Hard, an article by Susan Winter Fledderus published in the Shalem Digest (Fall 2016).
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network