Handling the Holiday Blues
It’s the most emotional time of the year.
I’m not a Grinch. You won’t hear me saying Bah-Humbug. I enjoy the holiday season. October through December are by far the best months of the year in my book.
But there is a unique undercurrent of sadness that only comes for the holidays. It can be challenging to reconcile feelings of nostalgia, heartache, or disappointment with the starlight and magic of the holidays. But I’m learning that humans have the extraordinary ability exist with a myriad of emotions all at once, if only we give ourselves permission to feel them.
Gratitude in tension
On Thanksgiving in my family, we always go around the table and share what we are thankful for. (This is my grandmother’s one wish. She probably wouldn’t feed us if we didn’t humor her.) Ever since my grandfather died in October of 2009, it’s been hard to enumerate our gratitude without thinking of him and feeling a rush of grief.
A few years ago, my grandma wrote a list of what she was thankful for on little pieces of paper, folded them up, and baked them into the rolls. We all got to read what she was thankful for — like a fortune cookie. In a beautiful moment of serendipity, the one in her roll said “47 years with Dick.” She read it and cried. We all cried.
This year, there are three members of the family who weren’t here last Thanksgiving. (Our family is very efficient when it comes to procreation. Being a single, childless woman in my 20s, I am, by and large, the exception in our gang.) There was an intoxicating cocktail of celebration and sorrow at these three new lives. All of us who remember my grandfather were sad that they wouldn’t get to have him as theirs. When we went around the room, I said I was thankful for him — that even though he wasn’t there with us, his legacy was still evolving. We all cried.
In a world with so much darkness, sickness, injustice, and evil, it is hard to put all of that aside and celebrate gratitude. It takes special mental and emotional skill to be able to hold all of those things in tension. I hate that I couldn’t hug my grandmother because I don’t want to get her sick. I hate that my grandfather wasn’t there and didn’t get to hold his newest grand babies. I hate that millions of people were hungry on Thanksgiving when I was stuffing myself with turkey and pecan pie. And those things become especially highlighted on a day that’s supposed to be market by gratitude.
I am learning to hold my gratitude in tension with an ongoing desire for a better world.
Christmas has always highlighted the most broken parts of my life. The expectations for Christmas morning to be magical and special and perfect make all of the ways that the day isn’t perfect sting so much more than they normally would.
My parents are divorced. My sister and I always spend Christmas morning with our mom, and then go to our dad’s in the afternoon. I always feel a giant pit in my stomach when we say goodbye to my mom, knowing that she’ll be sitting at her house alone for the rest of the day. That is not how she imagined her Christmases when she was a young mom with two little baby girls.
When my sister and I were middle school and high school aged, there were countless times that our Mom and Dad would accidentally get us the same gift. It always crushed my Mom. Seeing her disappointment made me want to scrap the whole day. Let’s call the whole thing off, and avoid the disappointment, shall we?
I am learning to appreciate my family for what it is, even when the scars feel fresh again.
New Year, new expectations
New Year’s Eve parties are one of my least favorite things ever. They are saturated in unattainable expectations. You’re supposed to have someone to kiss at midnight, have a really cool party to go to, have completed all your goals from the previous year, and have a brand new list of goals for the next year. I mean, we are practically begging for disappointment.
New Year’s Eve fills me with all kinds of nostalgia. I compare the year that’s winding down to previous years. I get stuck between longing for the past and longing for the future. Sometimes I even long for the present; I feel nostalgia for the moment I’m in. New Year’s Eve welcomes all the existential dread. (I feel similarly on my birthday. I usually end up crying on my birthday because another year has passed and I’m not where I think I should be.) The heavy state of reflection is so hard on me. I start to miss things and people I haven’t thought of in awhile. I grieve old wounds. And the fact that it’s supposed to be a celebratory holiday makes it hurt worse. I’m upset because I’m upset when I’m not supposed to be upset.
I am learning to respect my journey, even when it’s not what I was expecting, and have patience with myself.
It’s just a day
These emotions are not wrong. Feelings are what they are, and we have to let them come and go. But it’s been helpful for me to remember that every holiday is just a day. My family has all the same problems every other day of the year, and the world does, too. I think it’s important to hold those tensions all the time, not just on holidays.
The tension that I have so much to be grateful for and so much work to do.
The tension that I can relish the lights and gift-giving and decorations, and still grieve the broken pieces of my home and my heart.
The tension that hard times are coming, but good times are, too.
I want to enjoy the holiday season, and I do. I love the sweater weather and hot chocolate. I love Christmas Eve services. I love seeing the magic of holidays through my niece and nephew’s eyes. But the grief is there, too. It will always be there. And that’s okay.