As a young bride in September 1973, Christmas was right around the corner. I was eager to start our own family traditions and blend some from each of our original families. I looked forward to shopping, baking cookies and creatively wrapping gifts purchased with much thought and delight. I had two nephews to fill the child quota that some insist is required for holiday cheer.
I also became aware that some people experience sadness, melancholy and downright depression at Christmas time, which baffled me. Magazine and newspaper articles advise “sufferers” how to cope with the sadness that comes with “the holidays” — Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. That’s a long time to be in a bad mood and to feel sad and ill equipped to get back to happy or even content with one’s daily life.
I could not understand how anyone could be sad at such a festive time. Primarily, Christmas is remembering God’s gift to all of humanity, being born as Jesus, a human being to live among us and show us the way. The celebration is colorful, busy with shopping, gift-giving and receiving; full of uplifting music, promises of laughing, feasting, family togetherness, visiting, and time off work.
At 32 years old, with two children and a home of my own, it hit me. The melancholy set in and I didn’t understand it any better. I fought it and hid it and didn’t discuss it.
The tips for coping didn’t help. I just rode it out, assumed it was a one-time glitch and carried on with a new year.
The following year, it hit me again, no worse than the first time, but still a surprise. I went through the motions of shopping, wrapping, baking, decorating the tree and house, cleaning and cooking. My thoughts were into it but my heart was blah.
Fast forward 25-plus years and several more blah episodes at holiday time and I think I have an understanding of what happens.
As children we learn about “getting” — from parents, siblings who aren’t usually so generous, perhaps other family and friends, and Santa Claus.
We make a list of “wants,” for parents to see and send it to the invisible but well-stocked Santa Claus, anticipating getting for weeks. As older kids, we are still asked, “What do you want for Christmas?” While we may also make or buy gifts to give loved ones and the needy, the focus tends to be on the getting of what we want.
In childhood, it seemed Christmas celebration was permanent, set in stone. Good things were added and nothing good was removed. It was dependable for a good time.
As a child, I didn’t have a sense of anyone missing. All of my loved ones were with me, not just at holidays but every day. The heady feeling of getting a quantity of material wants for nothing — not a reward for doing chores or a good report card or my birthday — is easy for kids to look forward to.
Add the glitz and music and everyone saying Christmas is for children anyway and we’re set up for an adult Christmas crash.
On top of all the busyness and anticipation, family members die or move too far away to be together for holidays. What was a dozen or more people sitting around the table dwindles to two or is replaced by new family, like grandchildren.
Friends who once had 35 or more together at Christmas tell me it’s hard to be the elders now, missing the gatherings of the olden days.
Challenges of real life or a death that’s hard to get through set in and change begins, subtle at first and then repeats — at holiday time. Nostalgia is fed by the hidden realization that all holiday events were planned and done for us and now we are the doers. It’s up to us to make the holidays festive and family oriented — and it doesn’t feel the same.
Some day after Thanksgiving is over, I’ll likely wake up and know the sadness is here, and it may stay a while or go as quickly as it came. It’s a quiet, vague awareness that rolls in like a fog upon the clear, consistent calendar days of planning and preparing.
Two years ago I remembered with a different kind of clarity those who are no longer with us: my dead parents and in-laws, siblings far away, friends and extended family scattered.
Hoping for a positive change, I developed a self-imposed attitude adjustment, which I’ve proposed to my family to do as well.
My own long-time unemployment and financial concerns of my children taking care of their children seriously influence spending. For a few years now, each adult chooses one adult’s name for whom to buy one gift.
Then we all go overboard buying for the three grandchildren.
So I revived a previously tried plan: No more than three gifts per person, including something for now (gold), something for spiritual life (frankincense) and something for later (myrrh). If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough.
First, I start shopping as early as August so there’s less stress on finances, my time and temperament at the last minute.
Then, back to basics.
A tradition begun when my own children were babies, I buy socks for each in-house family member.
One year, money was tight and I half-heartedly told my sister I wanted knee socks in my stocking. When three pairs were under her tree, marked for me, I was thrilled upon opening them and decided to supply such a staple every year. While not cheap, socks are useful all year.
I can give a coffee mug with an encouraging verse written on it; write a letter telling how the receiver’s life has touched mine in a good way. Picture frames are useful and suitable for teenagers on up. For the future, I can give a savings bond that grows to full value later.
Mostly, I will concentrate on the matured, giving aspect of the season. I can set aside a memorial time at Thanksgiving for those who are gone or may leave this life during the year. I can remember without dwelling on — look without staring at — the past and give thanks to God for who is here by giving time or items to people who are here.
I already have gifts in mind for the needy to make from my own hands, crocheted and jeweled, so they can feel cared for in a tangible way. I make sure to give dried goods to the food pantry. I’m polite to sales people and cashiers anyway, but I make a point of it during the harried holiday rush.
If the fog of melancholy descends this year, the wind of change will push it away ever so much sooner, letting in the bright light of love.