So the other day I get to the office and I say to our secretary, “Hey, I guess this is Nervous Breakdown Week,” because it had started. I think you know what “it” refers to: the slow tidal wave of holiday angst that starts rolling in at some point around Thanksgiving. It never fails. I myself get very moody about the sudden onslaught of darkness clamping down around everything in the early afternoon, and I start getting all sorts of calls from emotionally or financially distressed folks. I appreciate the opportunity to be a patient listener and (hopefully) supportive presence for others, as I myself tend to give over to bouts of self-pity this time of year, brooding about not having a husband around to hang Christmas lights or to pick up the dry cleaning in the cold for me. I get lonely in a way that I just don’t get any other time of year but late August and sneak extra bacon into the baked beans. It’s a struggle.
One thing that I have stopped struggling with, though, is that the holidays ARE a struggle. They just are. I hosted Thanksgiving again this year as I have done for a decade and think how much I love it, on one hand, but how stung I was one year when a best friend referred to us as “leftovers,” and how it still hurts when I think of it. And how ridiculously offended I was for a moment this year when an old hometown friend invited me to be a guest at her table at a gathering she listed on Facebook as “Orphans Thanksgiving.”
You can’t win! In one corner, over-sensitive spinsters who love their life and who don’t want to be categorized as leftover or orphaned because we’ve chosen to live outside of the traditional family structure. In the other corner, people in traditional family structures who are hurting because family life is being messy and hellish for them, or maybe just freaking out because the expectations are too high this time of year and they don’t think they can manage the whole rigamarole.
With all this in mind, please accept with my love and sisterly solidarity with all the screwed up cookies of the world, PeaceBang’s Holiday Survival Guide:
1. Keep your expectations completely realistic.
Like, I don’t bake. I’m a really good cook and a terrible baker. Guess who’s not going to bake cookies for the holiday swap? ME. Guess who’s going to not feel guilty about that? ME.
Don’t try to do the stuff you’re not into doing. My old college roommate Mary is a genuis at tying bows so she has a lucrative side business at the holidays doing up wreaths. If I had to make even one professional-grade bow I would be in deep trouble. But I’m really awesome at helping people pick out gifts and at sneaking up on people and doing a special tiny Christmas miracle for them and I love doing that. Do what you can do, and what you’re good at. If all you can do this year is change the sheets on your bed once a week and keep reasonably clean until the whole season is over, do THAT. Maybe you’re not feeling good at anything right now. You don’t have to be. Maybe you could just be good at extending compassion toward yourself. How about that?
2. Consider making the holidays actually religious.
Sixteen years ago I was a ministerial intern and my supervising minister informed me that I would be leading the Christmas Eve service. I was shocked and excited and full of liturgical anticipation for days until it hit me: I wouldn’t be going home for Christmas.
I was devastated. But I had chosen ministry as a life path and I realized that I had to consider this part of my calling and part of my job. What I did then was to book myself into a monastery for Christmas Day, where I would have no vestige of my traditional Christmas and could break with the past in an intentional way. I drove to the Cistercian monastery late that night in the December rain where I was greeted by a friendly nun and showed to my room, which had a reindeer decoration and my name on it on the door (a reindeer! So secular!). It was very touching. I put down my bag. We didn’t have cell phones then, so there was no phone, no television, no computer, no connection to the outside world. That was where I spent my first Jesus’ Birthday in silence, with only an illuminated star over the barn to mark the day.
No presents, no new pajamas, no family or friends, no music (except for the morning service in the chapel), no Rudolph on TV, no decorated tree. I ate my meals alone in silence. It was immensely peaceful and beautiful. I walked outside in the fields on the unseasonably warm day and asked Jesus a lot of questions, all of which he responded to with questions of his own. Christmas has ever after been about his birth for me. I love giving and getting presents, I love decorating my tree (with all animal ornaments), I love the cards and the music and watching “The Muppets Christmas Carol” most years.
But Christmas is a religious holiday now, and that means that if I’m not able to observe any of my traditions, it’s still a favorite and most special day of the year.
You could decide to make a silent, peaceful day for yourself, too. If you do it out of desire rather than a sense of anger, rejection or fleeing something painful, you are bound to experience real fun and joy. Of course your children may never forgive you but that just gives them rich fodder for the therapist’s couch later in life. They’ll survive.
3. If life has changed drastically, drastically change your holidays.
In the aftermath of a seismic life shift, we may cling to the hope that holiday traditions will anchor us with a sense of the unchanging nature of life. In my experience, this doesn’t work. It’s like taking out Grandma’s linen tablecloth and trying to get it to fit over a new dining room table at Thanksgiving. The dimensions are new and different, so Grandma’s tablecloth is going to have to be altered or added onto in order to set a beautiful table.
One of the years soon after my father died, my mother told us kids that she was taking us to Canada for Christmas. We were going to stay in a hotel. Wow. We had never done anything like that before. It sounded like a weird idea and we wondered how we would do presents. Mom said we’d just pile up our cars and bring them over the border with us! So that’s what we did. We celebrated Christmas at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario. It was freezing freezing freezing and very brave and fun and whattya know — happy. Of course it takes money and a strong parent to do something like that for a grieving family (whose kids are all over the place in different schools and colleges), but the point is that she took the holiday bull by the horns and insisted that we do this new thing. I encourage you to think along the same lines. Please don’t try to follow traditions when your heart isn’t in it. In the aftermath of death, divorce, grave illness, tragedy or momentously joyful but disruptive occasion like winning the lottery, welcoming triplets, or moving to a new city, feel free to do something new with the holidays. Over time, you can re-incorporate some of the old traditions as they suit your new circumstances. For now, though, recognize that nothing you do on Christmas can make things the way they were. Figure out together how you can best get through this one.
4. Consider skipping the cards.
We have e-mail and Facebook and Skype now. How many people are you really not in touch with? How many people haven’t seen recent photos of the kids? The sending of Christmas cards is a lovely tradition but honestly, it’s not something you should feel at all obligated to do in this day and age. Save the money and some trees and nights spent addressing envelopes.
5. Give gifts to the people and organizations that represent and support your heart’s desire for peace on earth, goodwill toward all.
Because it feels like a million bucks, even if what you give is ten bucks.
6. Make plans now to assure more well-being in the weeks ahead.
You might have tons of social obligations that make you sigh when you look at your calendar, or you might be looking at the weeks ahead and dreading loneliness and isolation. Honey, you’ve got to reach out. You’ve got to get some plans in place now so that (a) you have something to look forward to and (b) so you can start the new year feeling like you’re cared for and well, not exhausted, depleted, depressed and cripplingly lonesome.
Make HAPPY plans that help you feel supported and sane. Maybe it makes you happy to go out with a friend to the mall on December 26th and hit the sales. I would rather stick pins in my eyes than do that, but this has to be about what feeds your soul. Pastors, plan to meet friends for dinner after a Sunday evening worship somewhere ( you need to attend worship as well as lead it!). Ask pals to stop by with their dogs to hang out on December 28th when you know the kids will be out of town. Ask your favorite cousin to spend a few days with you over the new year to help you clean out the storage room in exchange for your going to her place in April to do her spring cleaning. Put something altruistic on the schedule for the time of the season you tend to get most Grinchy. Invite a child to see “The Nutcracker” with you and give her parents the night off. Promise a handy acquaintance a big pot of chili if he’ll come over and assemble toys for you on Christmas Eve eve. Call your therapist and get an extra appointment for December. Call in the troops for addictions support. Make sure you have an abstinence plan for the season and get a good sponsor, and put them on speed dial.
However you do it, this is your key to holiday survival. Maybe it’s yoga. Maybe it’s walks in the woods. Maybe it’s sitting tucked in a comfy chair with your Bible and a candle burning. Maybe it’s meditation, following your breath in and out.
This is from me to you, my friends, from a gal who has spent many Christmas mornings in frosty silence, listening to the world with a cat in my lap, a cup of coffee in my hand, and a beagle curled up next to me on the love seat in the parlor, in front of a roaring fire.
God really did so love the world, and really does still. Christmas really does have a special magic to it, a winter-begotten magic, an ancient, twinkly, hope-sprinkled thing that sounds like a very old man walking slowly across crunchy snow to die peacefully at the turning of the year, and that smells like a soft baby head after a nap on the warm hay. If you can just get away from the blaring mall music and dysfunction and sadness long enough to get to that magic, I promise it will come to you. It will come to you and it will give you the strength and the faith and the fuzzy lamb sweetness that you want to have filling you this season. Make as much space between yourself and the people and situations that interfere with you experiencing this magic, and make time and room for everything that hooks you up with it.
Check in here and let us know how it’s going for you.