What Do You Do When Christmas Isn’t Merry?
You’re supposed to feel happy this time of year. That’s how society tells you to feel. That’s what your family and friends expect from you. That may be what you’re telling yourself as well. Perhaps this past year has been difficult – there was a death in your family, a divorce, a layoff – or maybe it’s been an ordinary year. Yet, you find yourself battling holiday sadness and depression once again.
Whatever the cause, you don’t feel like celebrating. But here you are. Advent begins a week from today as I write this article, and the word “merry” is missing the mark for millions of people this Christmas season.
A Pandemic of Sadness, Depression
You aren’t alone if you feel sad, tired and depressed as we enter the Christmas season. A survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that about 65 percent of people feel lonely during the Christmas holidays. Some 64 percent of those with mental illness reported their conditions worsened during the holidays, and about half of people surveyed said they cannot spend any more time with loved ones. It’s a pandemic of depression.
The American Psychological Association reported that 90 percent of people feel greater fatigue and 80 percent feel more stressed during the holiday season. “Women and people with low incomes are most likely to feel the burden,” the organization added.
There is, however, at least one positive finding in all of the gloomy reports.
According to Psychology Today, “Suicide rates actually decrease during the holidays. It is commonly thought that holiday stress increases suicide attempts, but that simply isn’t the case. Actually, the lower incident of suicides is now thought to be related to family time and the support this generates.”
The publication offers these non-religious suggestions for feeling better:
- Talk to someone, meaning talk don’t text them.
- Get outside.
- Go through your greeting cards.
- Think ahead about one thing you would like to do this coming year.
- Cook some non-holiday food.
- Watch a television program, read a book or article, or do something else unrelated to the holidays.
The Family Expectation Scale
Expectations for family holiday gatherings are sometimes unrealistically high. You plan the perfect family dinner, but life’s realities hit you squarely in the face.
The younger children chase one another through the house, screaming at the tops of their lungs as your extended family slowly gathers for Christmas dinner. “She took my new toy!” “He hit me!” Your brother grabs his two youngest children and sends them to the “time out” corner.
It’s typical stuff when you have small children.
Meanwhile, your stepdad and your husband are treading on thin ground across the room. “I wouldn’t vote for him if ….! I mean listen to him!”
“I am listening, and that’s why I won’t vote for anyone else!” You walk over and quietly tap your husband’s arm to silently remind him of tonight’s “no politics” rule. Then, without missing a beat, you announce, “Dinner is ready. Let’s say grace and find our places at the table.”
All is well until your hypochondriac sister-in-law complains about a headache. “Did you use MSG on the beef? You know it gives me….”
Well, you didn’t remember, and you can’t possibly remove it at this point.
“What are your Christmas plans?” your other sister-in-law interjects. The conversation turns from migraines and MSG to the holidays until your sister recounts a cooking disaster you had several years ago at Christmas — a disaster in which the turkey slid off the platter and onto the floor.
You laughed with everyone else at the time, but the retelling of the story year-after-year is long-past getting old. In fact, it’s the reason your guests are having beef rather than turkey this evening.
There are worse family gatherings, but thankfully, most of them aren’t nearly as serious as the next one.
Battling Holiday Sadness and Depression
I recently wrote about suicide in my post “Can Christians Help People at Risk for Suicide?” on Patheos. You may read it by clicking here. The article describes some of the problems that led to the suicides of my nephew and my sister in the spring and summer of 2017.
My nephew had severe cerebral palsy that mainly affected his legs. He never learned to crawl or walk properly, and his struggles were heartwrenching. By the time he died at age 42, he was bedridden, his health was rapidly deteriorating, and he had stopped believing in God, yet blamed God for everything that was wrong in his life.
I can only say that God didn’t will my nephew to have cerebral palsy, nor did he allow cerebral palsy to happen, but it happened, nonetheless.
At a time when my nephew needed God most, he rejected him. And with his loss of faith came his decision to stopped attending family Christmas dinners.
My sister continued joining us, but the gatherings were quite uncomfortable because of her erratic behavior. Most of us were silently relieved when she stopped attending, but we also felt guilty because we were relieved. At least I did.
A depressed atmosphere loomed over our annual Christmas dinners. There was no way Christmas could be “merry” or even tolerable under the circumstances. Sadly, Christian families across the world have members who are battling holiday sadness and depression.
“Merry” Christmas Misses the Mark
It’s obvious that family problems are a major contributor to depression and other emotional problems during the holiday season and beyond. Mental health professionals point to these triggers:
- Unrealistic expectations about the holiday season
- Pressure associated with shopping
- Pressure associated with social events
- Excessive spending
- Society’s expectations
- Excessive eating and drinking
- Stress associated with travel
- The lack of a family or the presence of a toxic family
- Cold, wet, dreary weather
Ways to Combat Holiday Sadness and Depression
NAMI has several suggestions for people who are struggling through the holidays. I have a few thoughts as well but will get to them shortly. NAMI has this to say:
- Don’t forget your own needs.
- Make a list of reasons you are thankful.
- Don’t try to do too much.
- Be realistic about what you can and cannot do.
- Set boundaries for your family.
- Exercise every day.
- Make time for yourself.
- Maintain a healthy diet.
- Get a proper amount of sleep.
- Don’t consume alcohol or drugs.
- Take a walk.
- Help someone else.
- Practice deep breathing, meditation and step-by-step relaxation, starting with your toes and slowly moving up the body.
- Contact your doctor or your mental health professional if you have one.
- Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.
A Sense of Peace in Christ
My Christmases went up and down for several years thanks to family dramatics, but I finally realized that there was something missing from these “celebrations”: the Christ Child. I don’t believe my narrative mentioned him once until now.
Christmas holidays felt empty because I had neglected to put Christ front and center. My attention was on the gifts, Christmas tree, social events and other trappings of the season to the exclusion of the Christ Child.
Remember him — the baby whose birth is the reason Christians celebrate Christmas? The gifts will be enjoyed, put away and forgotten; social events will fade from memory; live greenery will die and turn brown. And Christ will remain with us.
These scriptures don’t speak specifically about the nativity, but they do draw me closer to Christ:
- Deuteronomy 31:8 says, The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.
- I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world, John 16:33 reassures us.
- Joshua 1:9 tells us, Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
- And my favorite is Psalm 56:3, When I am afraid, I put my trust in thee. Sometimes, I substitute the word “down” or “depressed” for “afraid.”
I would like to close with a suggestion that you check out a new post by Patheos contributor Linda L. Kruschke. It’s called Depression and Holidays – Know You’re Not Alone.
Kruschke begins with these words, Depression and holidays often go hand-in-hand. The holiest of celebratory days are meant to bring joy, but sometimes they only bring reminders of loss and grief. When holiday blues come, remembering Jesus is always with me and I am never alone counts. Read the entire post by clicking here.
She closes with a prayer about depression and the holidays. Meanwhile, I’m closing with a prayer for a kinder, more loving world in which Christ’s teachings rule. I pray that…
- Christians in the U.S. stop attacking one another and non-Christians, and I pray that Christians and non-Christians reciprocate.
- More Christians focus on Christ.
- The bloodshed between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East ends.
- Russia ends its war against Ukraine, and the soldiers go home.
People will say God must perform several miracles for any of these changes to take place. I won’t speculate about whether he will or won’t. But we need to remember that the birthday we celebrate this holiday season is, in itself, a miracle. What better time than the heart of the Christmas season for another miracle?