From Your Spiritual Coach

- An Early Remedy for Holiday Sadness

Holiday Survival Guide

Tools for reducing the stress and celebrating the holy

Written By Jerry L. Harber

Holiday stressHolidays are supposed to be a joyous, happy time, filled with warmth and laughter. Yet, for many, the emotions present are often tension, anger, disappointment, sadness, disillusionment, and even incompetence. What happens that turns these holy days into horrid days? And what can be done to keep that from happening?

Let's start with the first question. There are three things that combine to produce the pain:

  • pressure to have a perfect experience
  • unrealistic expectations
  • and the expectation of intimacy.

Let's look at each one.

The Perfect Experience. In our culture, holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, are portrayed as "perfect moments." Fairy tale pictures in commercials and holiday cards show us scenes that for many rarely happen—snowy landscapes and horse-drawn sleigh rides, flickering fireplaces and perfectly arranged candles, golden brown turkeys and laughing family members toasting the season. The subtle message is: This is how holidays should be; anything less is inadequate. The reality of holidays is oftentimes holiday dinners that exhaust the cooks and kitchens that take hours to clean; dinner rolls that won't rise; misguided gifts; and people who show up late, "spoiling everything."

Unrealistic Expectations. Trying to have the perfect experience is unrealistic, but other impossible expectations exist as well. There is tremendous pressure to spend too much money on decorations, food, drinks and gifts. Others expect you to "get into the holiday spirit" by entertaining at home or by attending more parties between Thanksgiving and New Year's than you are invited to all year. Declined invitations bring raised eyebrows or sad looks. How can you want to stay home and have a quiet evening? You should be enjoying yourself!

Expectation of Intimacy. The idea of coming home for the holidays is another cultural pressure we must face. The message is simple: You're supposed to be with family during the holidays, and you're suppose to enjoy being together. The reality is often very different. Frequently the added stress of the holiday season's expectations undermines attempts at being together and enjoying one another. The number of people seeking counseling increases after the holidays because of the stress that uncovers flaws in relationships during this time.

In spite of this dismal picture of the holidays, they need not be stressful times. Here are some ideas that can make a difference:

Start by remembering what holidays are really all about:
  • Thanksgiving is for giving thanks for what you have.
  • Christmas is for celebrating God's gift of eternal life though Jesus Christ.
  • New Year's is a time of reflection, renewal and refocusing on things that really matter.

Stop and rethink your habits and traditions associated with these days:
  • Make a list, write a narrative, jot some notes to yourself in which you describe what you really want to do versus what you think you should do. Traditions can be very helpful because they provide a sense of continuity with the past. This in turn fosters a sense of belonging, security, relatedness, and intimacy. And traditions provide a structure for important moments. But traditions should be reexamined, because they may need to be changed, revised, even abandoned if they don't achieve what they are suppose to achieve.
  • If new traditions make more sense, replace the old ones. It's one thing to visit everyone in your family when there are only two of you and one or two families to visit. But, as families expand and/or change through divorce and remarriage, another approach may make more sense and be just a meaningful.

Accept those things that can not be changed, but change those things that can:

  •  For example, your Christmas this year is not likely to bring the emotional supports you needed from your parents when you were growing up. If they couldn't do it then, they probably can't do it now.
  • Decide to break the bad habits you have with siblings or other relatives, such as rehashing old hurts.
  • Intimacy and warm feelings come in momentary waves, not long-lasting deluges; take what is offered and be thankful rather than comparing that to what you wished for and making yourself miserable.

By trying to follow these suggestions, you can actually celebrate the holidays as what they are meant to be: holy days.

Copyright © Jerry Harber