Desperately Seeking Bethlehem: Advent and Seasonal Depression

Desperately Seeking Bethlehem: Advent and Seasonal Depression December 3, 2018
Credit: Pixabay

I don’t remember Thanksgiving 1999. I’ve tried to pull some shadow of a memory forward from that day, but there’s nothing. I remember uneventful Thanksgivings from when I was growing up in Texas and the year I had the stomach flu in Indiana. I have memories of every Thanksgiving before and after that year, but there’s nothing from 1999.

I don’t think we celebrated it that year. There wasn’t much to celebrate, honestly.

My family had just moved in with an old friend of my father’s. We drove from Arkansas to Indiana to put some distance between me and the man who’d been stalking and threatening me. We were jobless, homeless, and feeling defeated. At eighteen, I was on temporary disability after a factory saw took a chunk out of me.

I don’t remember Thanksgiving that year, but I do remember the days leading up to Christmas. I remember thinking there was no point in just surviving. A life worth surviving needed some joy. Christmas was my favorite time of the year, and I wanted to make Christmas happen for us.

I dug around (one-handed, thanks to that saw) in our friend’s barn, found our artificial tree, put it up, and threw some decorations on it.

We were basing all of our decisions on what was most practical at that time, but when the factory gave me a small, unexpected Christmas bonus, I took my mom shopping for Christmas presents. Those presents weren’t “practical” in the way most people might understand it, but it is practical to do things to improve your mental health. In that way, they were extremely practical.

On Christmas morning, when we sat in a living room that wasn’t ours and opened those few gifts we’d found on sale, I was sure it would be my last sad Christmas.

Life would get back to normal. We’d have a home again. Jobs. Stability.

It wasn’t my last sad Christmas. It was just my first.

Sometimes I think I used up all my hope that Christmas. I’ve never been able to muster up that sort of strength and optimism in December since then.

We’re supposed to focus on hope, but what does that look like when you’re depressed? I’m obnoxiously optimistic most of the year, but when I hit December, all the color drains out of me.

Since 1999, all of my Christmases have been a little sad.

I think that’s OK. Jesus understands that sometimes life leaves sensitive scars.

We can be sad and hopeful at the same time. Mixed in with the seasonal depression and trauma and everyday stress, I really do feel that hope. I just can’t always act on it at this time of year.

I feel bad sometimes when I see all the fun activities other parents do with their kids while I’m hanging on by my fingernails. There’s no elf running around my house, making messes I’ll have to clean up, when I can barely convince myself to go wash the dishes.

Some people will wonder how I can be depressed when we’re waiting for Jesus. Yes, we’re waiting for Jesus, but he’s already here with us too. He’s here with me when I park it on the couch all day and binge-watch a show I’ve seen a dozen times because I just can’t even that day. He’s with me when I sit in the living room late at night, when everything is finally quiet, and stare at the way the Christmas tree lights make my glass ornaments sparkle instead of reading a devotional because I don’t have the energy to do it.

Jesus doesn’t take my seasonal depression personally. He understands.

A lot of people get depressed this time of year. We’re raw right now. It makes it so much harder to live up to the expectations everyone has on us, which feeds that depression even more. Maybe we can’t decorate our homes or entertain our kids the way our friends do, but we observe Advent in a quieter way.

And maybe we touch what it means on a deeper level.

It hurts to be apart from Jesus. He’s here with us, but we’re not together in the way we will be. We’re still homeless.

It makes sense to me that Advent can be a painful time. There’s so much pain and suffering in our world. Is it really odd that reflecting on a future when that won’t be true might make some of us sad? We desperately want that future, but it’s not here yet.

We want this to be our last sad Christmas. For us, hope is holding on, sometimes just barely, until that’s true.

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  • JoshM

    I always feel that society — our secular society moreso than Catholic — really puts an intense pressure on us all to be cheery and joyful this time of year, and it just kinda makes it worse. Our Catholic culture of Advent at least gives us the reminder that this life and its troubles are just temporary, and the joy of this season is something we can’t fully take in yet. Maybe that’s why, the older I get, the more the Grinch is my favorite Christmas story — it’s all about stripping away all the useless stuff we pile on this holiday, and just letting the season be its own unsullied self.

  • John Swaringen

    Kristy, thank you for this. I’m spending my second Christmas just getting fired from a job. It’s hard very hard and yes depressing. I do have hope though and hanging on right now is enough. Oh and we’re homeless too, living with my mother. Again, Thanks.

  • Bonnje

    Kristy, I haven’t really felt like “celebrating” the season since my husband died (at home, in the bed we shared) the day after Thanksgiving, 2013. This year, I have made a very small effort to recapture the holidays. I have put up an Advent wreath, and lighting the candle each evening as I say the prayers is bringing me a little sense of peace. I pray that this will indeed be your last “sad Christmas.”

  • Patti Nicholas Rusczyk

    Thank you Kristy for this article. Josh, like you said “Our Catholic culture of Advent at least gives us the reminder that this life and its troubles are just temporary, and the joy of this season is something we can’t fully take in yet.”. This is our first year living in a subsidized senior citizen apartment building and financially we can no longer afford to buy our children and granddaughters costly gifts. I feel joyless this year but I suspect it is due more to the fact that I’m not used to having God train me in His ways. Whenever I pray I ask God to strip me of all that is useless, though I feel He is answering my prayer, it’s a painful process.

  • “it’s all about stripping away all the useless stuff we pile on this holiday, and just letting the season be its own unsullied self.”

    I totally agree.

  • Big changes in life like that really are painful. It’s not just hard being a new new place, but it’s hard when you want to give your loved ones things you can’t give them. My grandfather passed away last Christmas Eve. My sister and I always got nice presents from our grandparents, but the only ones I even remember my grandfather giving me are these small wood items he’d make–a little goose, a “treasure” box. What’s really stayed with me are memories of all the cool things he did with us and the lessons I learned from him.

  • I got an Advent wreath for the first time last year, for the same reason. I think it does help me some. I pray you’ll continue to find some peace there too.

  • I hope your situation changes soon. I know how hard it is when you’re living in a home that isn’t really your home, especially over Christmas.

  • Tammy Mills Hanley

    “Yes, we’re waiting for Jesus, but he’s already here with us too. He’s here with me when I park it on the couch all day and binge-watch a show I’ve seen a dozen times because I just can’t even that day.” I love that. I hope these holidays surprise you with a blessing. I hug you if they don’t.

  • Thank you. 🙂

  • Joe J

    A lot of times, God takes things that appear to be really bad but they really aren’t. They are opportunities to make things much better. You mentioned bringing your family into the Church. Maybe God gave you this opportunity to live with your mother so you could do just that.

    God loves you immensely.