Happy Holidays? Surviving and Even Thriving in the Dark Times

The winter holidays come in the midst of ever darkening days when long afternoon shadows and cold winds seem to whip up feelings and memories along with the shaggy leaves. The weather and the short, dark days reflect for many of us a season not of joy and celebration, but instead, a time filled with disappointment and even despair.

What is it about the holiday season that can be so challenging? And, what can we do to weather it with greater peace and even a bit of joy? Read on for ideas about the origins of our misery and steps we can take to survive and, yes, even thrive, this time of year.

Happy smiling faces, a perfectly set table, children dressed in red sweaters, a sparkling tree with presents stacked high, friends and family sharing eggnog under the mistletoe. These and many more are the mythological images we are bombarded with at the holidays. The message: This is what it should look like. Yours doesn’t? There must be something wrong with you.

For many of us, our families, homes, finances and even our cooking, are not perfect, far from it. But, we often long for the mythological holiday, that has probably never really existed. Instead, our reality could be loneliness, loved ones lost to death, dysfunction or distance. We may be unable to afford presents or a tree, or are afraid of Uncle Bob’s tirade after too much eggnog. Comparing our situation in all its gritty reality to the mythological images in the media can be disheartening and thrust us into melancholy. Those pretty images can prime us with unrealistic expectations that are a set-up for feelings of failure and disappointment.

It has been said expectations are premeditated resentments. This is especially true during this time of year. Work to minimize expectations, and make those you have realistic. Create back up plans to call on when things fall through (which they will), and don’t rely on others to make your holidays special. Take control of the things you can and let go of the rest.

Celebrate Meaning
Whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, take time to reflect on the essential meaning it holds for you. Are you just going through the motions because that is what you’ve always done, or what others expect of you? Or, are you in touch with and honoring beliefs or traditions that have meaning? How can you make that meaning more a part of the celebration? What could you eliminate that does not seem to be consistent with meaning? What could you add that would make this time more meaningful and memorable?

Invest in Moments Instead of Things
For many of us, this time of year is full of high stress and harried schedules when there never seems to be enough time, energy or money. And while we are rushing around trying to create a perfect holiday experience, we often miss out on the very thing that could build relationships, positive memories and create well-being. We miss out on the moment happening right now.

It can help to slow things down, and when we limit our expectations, that happens more naturally. Take time to really be with loved ones. Listen. Laugh. Be in the silence. Breathe. Look around and find the beauty in whatever is. Count your blessings. Consider how you can create more opportunities for connection and relationship building.

What most of us really want is more love and attention, not more stuff. This goes double for kids, regardless of what they might say.

Create New Traditions
It can be painful when things change in our lives and cherished traditions are no longer viable. Divorce, relocation, death, estrangement or changes in finances can make upholding past traditions difficult. Make a decision to be flexible and creative. Create new traditions that fit current circumstances.

For example, one divorced mom decided that rather than argue with her ex over who had the kids at Thanksgiving, she would create a new way of celebrating gratitude. So, every year she held a harvest potluck and musical jam session two weeks before Thanksgiving. She invited all her friends and family and told her kids to do the same.

Eventually, this occasion grew into an annual event that took on great meaning for this family and the many people who participated over the years. They discovered that being with people they were grateful to have in their lives, eating, drinking and making music together, was a great way to honor gratitude and what day they did it, didn’t really matter that much. In fact, celebrating early meant they were able to share the experience with many people who otherwise would not be available. During the Thanksgiving holiday itself, this mom treated herself to a day of reading and relaxation while her children celebrated with their father. It was a win for all concerned.

Opt Out
Can’t find meaning in the holiday? Not sure why you’re doing it all? Sick and tired of the commercialization? Do what another family did and opt out. They decided together when the children were 7 and 10 they would spend their Christmas budget on travel instead of presents. They held a meeting each summer to decide where they would go and what they’d like to do and see. The kids were involved in planning and research. Together they made many wonderful memories on their holiday get-aways and never felt deprived.

Acts of Service
Another way to opt out is to make the holidays about service to others. This can create more meaning both for us and for those we serve. And, serving others often is an excellent remedy for the holiday blues. You might choose to buy a gift for a needy child, serve food at a homeless shelter or walk dogs at the Humane Society while other volunteers spend time with their family. Or maybe you just bake a pie and leave it on your neighbor’s doorstep (even if you don’t like him much).  They are many ways to help and they all get us out of ourselves and into meaning.

If you are rushing around, eating lots of sweets, not taking time to exercise, drinking more alcohol, worrying about how you will pay the credit card bill, and staying up late to wrap gifts or put together bikes, it can be a recipe for irritability, illness, anxiety and conflict. Now is the time to increase self-care strategies rather than letting them fall away. Get enough rest. Eat your veggies and be careful about alcohol consumption. Monitor your thoughts for negative self-talk and keep within your budget. And, remember, it will all be over soon.

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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