Winter Blues: When the Holidays Are Not So Merry

When we begin reflecting on the holidays, some of us may feel a little twinge of uncertainty, exhaustion, and relief that it’s over. Wasn’t this year’s Christmas supposed to be the perfect one? A festive, cheery, happy, traditional family holiday? Well, in my line of work, it is often the opposite. All month, otherwise perfectly lovely and relatively stable people have been coming in with troubling family issues. Most of my practice does not consist of the stereotypical “crazies.” They are predominantly people like you and me who are trying to find ways and learn new tools to better their lives. In fact, I have begun to believe they are some of the sanest, or at least most aware, people around.

Nevertheless, one after another, with kids coming home from college, parents and in-laws acting strangely, blended families getting unglued, divorced wives and husbands juggling kids, my clients have been stressed. Even some of the calmest couples have been fighting. I take a deep breath, sit back and explain that the entire month of December can be a possible precursor to Holiday Hell. January can be full of reflections (going over negative family conversations in your head a million times), doubts, loneliness and let downs. There’s no DSM IV diagnostic code for these behaviors. But after almost four decades of sitting in my therapist chair, I’ve seen the Holiday Blues so often that I know what I write is true.

Christmas is supposed to be a holiday filled with magic, nostalgia, traditions, and feasts. Yet it is also filled with a capitalistic overtone due to the gift-buying frenzy. We are pressured to find the “perfect” tree, deck the halls, address the holiday cards, cook, clean, and attend numerous social obligations. And, we are supposed to make merry, look great, and smile and sparkle through the whole process.

Family members take trains, planes and automobiles to be together. But, the reality of family in America today is no longer mom, dad and 2.5 children sitting around a table smelling basted bird in a home surrounded by a white picket fence. Family is far more likely to be defined as divorced, blended, or a same sex couple. Kids are divided between one or more households. Ex-spouses who were once accustomed to large extended families are often alone. Neighbors gather as substitute community and dissatisfactions seemingly come from out of the blue. June Cleaver is no more.

True, there still are some happy nuclear family folk around. But in today’s society, they are the exception, not the rule. So if you want to feel fulfilled, and instead are lonely or your family is fraught with dissent, you are not alone. But you WILL get through it. And next year can be better.

Some true scenarios:

Jim wants to marry Jane, She’s not sure. He wants to spend the holiday with her. She’s going to visit her family in Alaska.

Will and Betty are happily married. It took Will, 64, three tries to find his lucky lady “charm” and Betty, 57, two. Now in their fifties and sixties, they’ve worked hard at mending their mistakes and have got marriage right. Except the nine kids between them and three grandchildren are suddenly squabbling and throwing tantrums and deciding it’s time for step-parent dislike. After nine years of working hard to blend their diverse brood into a one cohesive family, they can’t understand why so many factions and feuds have emerged.

Melinda adored her husband, always did, perhaps always will. Except one day he walked out and now she’s alone. Four years after their divorce, and Christmas still causes an ache in their heart. This year she’ll spend it with a group of women friends and will still feel terribly alone. Warren, her ex is with his new girlfriend. Or at least girlfriend of the moment, who has decided that Christmas is the perfect time to move in together. Only, he isn’t ready and wants to flee.

Mildred is alone and her kids and grandkids are off on a cruise. Yes, she’s happy they are so successful and wishes them well. But she hates the turkey at the senior living residence and besides, this is not anything like the huge holidays she used to host.

David at 45 is still unmarried, dislikes his family of origin and is flying from DC to California to be with his friend Phil’s family to endlessly discuss why no woman is right for him.

Newly separated, Mort and Mary’s kids shuttle back and forth, eating half a meal with him and half a meal with her. Everyone feels crabby and ill.

For all too many, this day of gratitude becomes a day of hell. They want it to go well, but can’t wait until it’s over. They will stuff their confusing feelings away and watch football and try to relate to as few family members as they possibly can.

Remember, one tough day does not a life time make. We all got through this Christmas and the new year is at our door step. And don’t forget the true purpose of the holiday – to love one another and be grateful for what we HAVE been given in life – bickering family and all.

Five ways to cope with Christmas stress and prevent it next time:
1. Communicate to family members about your expectations for social gatherings and upcoming holidays in advance.
2. Genuinely care about their feelings and listen to their points of view. Compassion is your antidote to stress.
3. If conflict does emerge, understand that it is brought on by the holiday and do not take it personally.
4. If tension arises, crack a joke or do something innovative to change the topic and redirect focus.
5. Cooperate where you can. Giving in may be the last thing you want to do when it comes to stubborn family members, but the result is usually far better when people agree to work together.

Previously Published in 2008