For some of us, the most joyous time of the year is the most difficult. An LDS therapist tells us why.
Do you love Meridian and the refreshing, inspiring stories and insights we bring you reach day? Now is our annual voluntary subscription drive. Please click here to donate to Meridian. Thank you for your generous support.
For those of you who experience depression around the holidays, the good news is: it will go away. You probably don’t have Major Depressive Disorder and there is no need to run off to the doctor and pick up a prescription for Prozac. By the time the meds kick in the holidays will be over anyway. The bad news is: the holidays will return again next year, and so will the depression.
Those of us who get depressed around holidays get depressed for the same reason. Loss. The holidays remind us of what we are missing out on. Some of us have lost loved ones and the holidays remind us how much we long for their company. Some of us lost our loved ones during the holidays and the holidays can trigger the memory of their death. My grandma was murdered two days after Christmas… not an event I write on my calendar, but I remember it every year.
Even if the holidays don’t remind you of the loved ones you have lost, the holidays will still remind you of some kind of loss. Inevitably, the holidays trigger the loss of a dream. Some of these dreams are trivial and some are profound.
My husband was raised in a Beaver Cleaver family where his Mom kept an entire storage room full of Christmas decorations. Their upstairs Christmas tree existed for company it was flocked flawlessly and every ornament was gold. The downstairs tree thrilled the kids. They trudged through the mountains themselves to find the perfect tree. They always found it, waiting patiently in the silent snow for them to bring it home. They strung cranberries to decorate it and brought home ornaments from school to hang on its bows. The house smelled of fresh pine from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Bret misses the trees. In our home I decorate one tree each year, and it isn’t even real.
He has tried to make reality meet up with his expectations. I don’t make popcorn balls like his mom did, so he makes them himself. I don’t make fudge like his mom did, so he buys it in mass. We can’t make a snow man here in Florida, so every Christmas we go to the beach and make a sand man.
The disparity between reality and our expectations will define the depth of our depression. When our expectations are high, and our reality is far from our expectations, we will experience a serious let down. As a child, you may have expected Santa to be real, and you can recall your disappointment when you sat on his lap and discovered his beard slipped beneath his chin.
Each year I expect that I will hang Christmas lights all over the exterior of my house, but in reality, I end up plugging in electric candles that shine from the windows. Every year I expect that I will make plates full of all different kinds of home-baked cookies to take to my neighbors, but in reality I end up buying them a tin full of peppermint bark from Williams Sonoma. Every year I think my ginger bread house will stick together at the seams, but it always collapses into a heap of gum drops and Hershey’s Kisses. This year I expect to knit a Christmas stocking for my first grandchild that will match the stockings my grandmother knitted for me. But you can clearly see what will happen in reality, even if I can’t.
During the holidays our dreams are too often mere fantasy, and our wishes could never come true. We get our hopes up so high that we’re sure to be let down. How could I possibly squeeze dozens of hours of decorating/baking/shopping/wrapping/partying into a schedule that is already packed from the time my alarm goes off in the morning to the time my husband carries me to bed because I’ve fallen asleep at my desk? Why do I expect miracles to occur every year and then I’m crushed when they don’t?
As disappointing as it is that our holiday trappings don’t come together as we imagine, even more disappointing is the fact that our relationships don’t come together as we imagine. Most of us imagine the holidays as a time to gather with our loved ones and we expect our loved ones to be our family. We travel great distances to be with our families. We expect to revel in our time together.
If you listen to Christmas Carols during the holidays, notice that they imply that our troubles will be out of sight, or miles away. The Christmas carols lead us to believe that all our wishes will come true. The Christmas carols make us think that our hearts will be light. They make us believe that we will be full of joy and good cheer. However, in reality, family doesn’t always bring cheer, and spending the holidays with those we are supposed to love doesn’t always bring joy.
When we’re considering trivial losses, such as minimalistic decorating, or impersonal presents, the obvious solution is to change our expectations. Stop setting your expectations so high and you’ll avoid disappointment. Adjust your hopes and dreams to a realistic level, and then your dreams will have a chance of coming true. My first Christmas in Florida didn’t seem like Christmas at all. People hung lights on palm trees of all things. Nobody wore boots or scarves. They wore flip flops and hats. Snow didn’t blanket people’s lawns, but wooden dioramas of Nativity scenes. Where I grew up anything sitting on your lawn would be buried in snow in December and wouldn’t appear again until spring. But I soon embraced a balmy Christmas and now lights on palm trees make me feel as festive as snow-flocked evergreens ever did.
Changing our expectations regarding our relationships would help alleviate our disappointment considerably. When we let go of the dream that our family will be friction-free just because the calender says December 25, we won’t be disappointed that our families are just as dysfunctional in the 12th month of the year as they are during the other 11 months. We need to accept our families as they are, and not expect them to be different during the holidays.
One of our family’s favorite holiday movies is Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation (minus the swimming pool scene). We hoot at grandma delivering the pledge of allegiance instead of the prayer. We chortle when Clark wakes the entire neighborhood with his Christmas lights. We cheer when Eddie kidnaps the chinzty boss.
Perhaps this is a family favorite because we all have crazy grandmas, uncles, cousins, dads, moms, and siblings. We accept their craziness. We accept their crazy choices and their crazy lifestyles, and their crazy habits and we love them anyway.
We don’t expect them to be different than they are just because it’s Christmas. We love them just the way they are, and we are simply glad that they are alive and part of our family.
Although my 16 waking hours won’t suddenly feel like 20 and I won’t get everything done that tradition expects me to do, one miracle might yet occur at Christmastime. Since my family members won’t be other than what they are, I could use the holidays to be okay with that. I could take the opportunity to let go of the hurt that my family’s choices have caused me and let the Savior work miracles in my heart. As we celebrate the birth of our Savior, we could celebrate his atonement and the at-one-ment it brings. We could forgive the past, and the present, and what will likely occur in the future because our family is who they are. Perhaps when we gather as family we could actually feel love and joy and cheer and peace. No doubt, it is a miracle when the Savior heals our wounds. But that miracle is one in which I still believe.