We look forward to the holidays, a time of goodwill and good times, a time of love and togetherness. Yet paradoxically many of us experience the holiday blues, especially at Christmas.
First a myth. We frequently hear that depression and suicide rise dramatically during the holidays, but the facts do not support that claim. The month of December actually has one of the lowest suicide rates. But low-grade depression (circumstantial not biochemical) and pervasive loneliness do seem widespread. Why might that be so? Here are the top 10 reasons:
10 Many of us experience a disparity between our expectations and reality. Television shows and advertisements promote the holidays as times of ineffable joy. But if we buy into those Norman Rockwell, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” fantasies, the realities of our lives and families inevitably fall short. Even worse, it seems like we’re missing out on what many others are experiencing. But that’s not so. No family lives up to those magical expectations.
9 The disparity between expectations and reality can also be because of deficiencies with the latter. Often the holidays do not cause sadness or loneliness as much as exacerbate existing feelings. Perhaps we are geographically far from the people we love. Or worse, physically close but emotionally distant. Both cause loneliness.
8 Sometimes our sadness is related to a loved one’s accident, illness, or death. Holidays accentuate our loss. Ironically, families can have very good holiday times if such losses cause them to realize how fragile life is and that we should not take anyone or anything for granted.
7 Sometimes sadness is the result of childhood memories. In some cases those can be nostalgic, idealized memories of Christmases past. For others, memories resurrect feelings of rejection, abuse, or loneliness. Some of us need to give ourselves permission to grieve a childhood we never had.
6 Considerable anxiety, sadness, or even anger also results from the complexities of gift giving and receiving. What can I get for someone who has everything? Did someone really appreciate my gift? Did reciprocal gifts cost roughly the same? For various reasons many families have scaled back to drawing names and buying a gift for only one adult. Since most of us have few if any needs, some families have totally dropped gift giving in favor of contributions to a Christian or charitable cause.
Consider going beyond a financial contribution. During the holiday season, visit a nursing home or volunteer at a homeless shelter. Serving people who are less fortunate has a way of dissipating self-pity and stimulating a grateful spirit.
5 Some of us get emotionally out of whack because of stress. We get too busy, overextended, and tired. Women especially can be exhausted by holiday demands to shop, bake, clean, and entertain. Take control; make choices. You don’t have to attend every social event or bake 12 kinds of cookies. Decorations don’t have to be perfect. We all would do well to step back and ask what’s really meaningful. Less is often more fulfilling.
We would do well to take care of ourselves physically during the holidays. Many of us eat and drink too much and sleep too little. Sugar and alcohol give only a temporary lift before a greater slump. Continue or begin to exercise.
4 Difficult or strained family relationships are especially troubling and not easy to change. We should work on such relationships, but holiday times are probably not the best time. Better to anticipate and accept that Uncle Leo is usually a bit overbearing and your sister-in-law tends to make insensitive comments. You can choose how to respond; let their behavior blow by. So some of your relatives aren’t perfect; neither are you or me. Let go of perfectionist expectations for others and yourself.
The famous Serenity Prayer offers wise counsel to almost any person in almost any circumstance: try to change what you can and accept what you can’t. Of course, as the prayer notes, that differentiation often requires wisdom.
3 For Christians, the unholy mix of the commercialized and the spiritual can be confusing and depressing. I’ll never forget being in a K-mart when the “Hallelujah Chorus” was interrupted by a blue-light special. It made me nauseated and angry.
For Christians the spiritual dimension of the holidays seems to cut both ways. The best antidote for most of the issues we’ve discussed is to remember the real reason for the season. But that can also feed our depression. At Thanksgiving we may realize that during the year we are typically not characterized by a grateful heart. Or at Christmas we realize that the commercialized version gets far more of our attention than the birth of our Savior.
2 Our greatest need is to be right with God, but the holidays can betray our doublemindedness and lukewarm nature. Discomfort can be a wake-up call. Pain is often a signal that something is not right. So it is with a pervasive malaise or troubling discontent. A Thanksgiving dinner can be filling but does not bring lasting fulfillment. What does? A Christmas present, even if needed, cannot meet our deepest need. What will? Instead of trying to eliminate troublesome emotions, we might ask, What are they telling us? What is wrong? What is really needed?
1 Behind our depression and malaise is a spiritual homesickness, a longing for how things were meant to be. Expecting a big meal or an expensive present or even our families to fill that void is futile if not idolatry.
Ironically the holiday blues can help us appreciate the essence of Christmas in a fresh way. Unfulfilled childhood dreams, abrasive relatives, and flawed celebrations are all evidence of the fall. Everywhere we look we see signs—illness, sibling jealousy, premature death—that nothing is the way it’s supposed to be. And that’s why we desperately need Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas. That’s why we need to be vigilant for any sign of becoming desensitized to those greatest-of-all truths and intentionally seek fresh ways to experience their significance. Our goal, not just at holidays but throughout the year, is to have our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors shaped not by circumstances but by the gospel of Christ.
About the Author
Dr. Wayne Joosse is professor of psychology emeritus at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich. He attends Brookside Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids.