[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, December 2012]

When I was a child, during a conversation with my grandmother, I was surprised when I asked her about her favorite holiday, and she said, “I don’t know, but it sure ain’t Christmas!”  Like all kids, I looked forward to Christmas, not just for presents, but for the excitement.  To hear she DIDN’T like it was disconcerting.  At the time, my grandmother laughed it off, explaining it was the monetary cost.  But looking back now through the eyes of a counselor, I think she was speaking to something that often gets covered up by wrapping paper and tinsel.

Christmas is hard.

True, it isn’t one big, long sequence of despair.  But it’s an event wrapped in rituals, ceremonies, be they religious, secular, cultural or familial.  Society has expectations during Christmas, as do individual households.  We have demands placed on us to perform, a certain way to feel.  The holiday season is like a wedding.  We all want it to go perfectly, and yet it often doesn’t.  There’s always someone who can’t make it home, a gift that couldn’t be found, or an old argument that breaks out.  One bad moment spoils a perfect evening of caroling and gifting.  Isn’t it a painful accusation when somone says, “You ruined Christmas?”

So the expectations placed on us–on our moods, on our feelings, on our thoughts–can be very stressful.  The message is that we’re supposed to be happy, positive, in the spirit of giving of ourselves.  Even when we just don’t feel that way, as when we’re already stressed, and the holidays are taxing our remaining coping energies.  The requirement to be happy can be especially hard when we’ve lost someone.  Being pressured into smiling for others can remind us of how much we miss those who don’t share the present moments with us now.  Is it any wonder rates of depression go up and many suicides occur around Christmas?  And don’t we all know someone who died during the holidays?  I’ve heard dozens of such patient reports, relatives who died “on Christmas.”  This is not coincidental.  My suspicion is that the mindset being forced on them was just too much to handle, particularly if they were already ill or depressed.

Add to these considerations the need to expend scarce money, or spend time in public where harried shoppers, surly retailers, traffic congestion and other realities bear little resemblance to the “good will to all men” of the Yuletide message.  Such logistics too often fall short of the ideal.  This makes me suspect that many of us have guilt at Christmas time, because that disparity leaves us feeling less joyous than the season demands.

What to do?

I think we must treat Christmas like any other stressor.  That involves first drawing on outside resources.  Remember, most of us aren’t handling Christmas all by ourselves.  At heart, it is a group phenomenon.  Hopefully, we have a few family and friends out there, and if called upon to share, they’ll probably confess to being a bit frazzled by the season too.  The sharing can be therapeutic, and offers renewed bonding.  A burden shared is a burden halved, as the conventional wisdom states.  This real-time emotional connection is what most holiday enthusiasts will tell you it’s all about anyway.  Finally, keep Christmas in perspective.  True, the day is going to come, with its rituals and expectations.  Whether that is positive or negative, there’s no escaping it.  Nevertheless, it isn’t stress that kills, but how we handle it.  If the holidays are particularly hard for you, cultivate a “this too shall pass” expectation.  After all, year after year, you can always count on December 26 to follow afterward.  Much of the hoolabaloo comes to an end then.

If all else fails, be like me and look forward to New Year’s as the relaxing “after party!”

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