The lights are twinkling, the cinnamon is wafting and your children’s cheeks are rosy with anticipation, so why do you feel so darned blue? Could it be that the kids crushed your favorite ornament, the dog just chewed through a box of candy canes and the cat threw up a ball of tinsel? So now you feel blue and guilty, because you nearly killed the cat. Way to go.
But seriously, ‘holiday blues’ are caused by more than mere mishaps on the home front. It makes sense to feel melancholic during the holidays. Extended families tend to congregate, but sometimes loved ones move away, places and faces change, and people die. Nobody relishes the thought of letting go of the people, places and traditions dear to them, myself included.
Sharing old photos and traditions with your children while you make new memories together can help. Grief and joy can indeed share space during the holidays. Gift your children with that possibility.
Some family memories aren’t Kodak moments, however, and they always seem to surface at holiday time. When families get together, inevitably someone will fan the flames of an old family feud. It’s bound to happen, so make sure you’re game before you book your tickets. How many times have you hoped that ‘this year will be different,’ only to return home muttering about how you ‘knew this would happen,’ and wished you’d spent the money on a trip to Disney instead? Consider editing your expectations and your plans (a shorter stay or tuck-in at the motel instead) this year.
Ultimately, you may have to grieve and let go of your hopes for certain relationships. You can’t change other people, but you can change how you choose to respond to them. Don’t hold your breath, but over time this slight shift may positively impact your rapport.
Holiday blues and the unresolved grief that often provokes it are very real experiences and can be particularly vexing for parents of young children. Not only are we mired in memories of holidays past, but we feel pressured to make the magic happen for our kids.
As a result, sometimes the more contemplative aspects of the season get lost on our to-do lists. Is yours cluttered with plans for purchases and commitments that could be reconsidered? Maybe this year you’ll opt out of the annual portrait sitting and save time, postage and precious energy by simply e-mailing your favorite candid photo of the kids along with your season’s greetings to loved ones instead. Sounds like a plan to me. After I press send, I’ll unplug and bliss out for an hour with a cup of hot tea and some holiday tunes (my favorites? "The Soul of Christmas, A Celtic Music Celebration with Thomas Moore"). The point is to make time for what you value most during the holiday season. It’s your holiday, too.
I’ve learned that stepping outside of myself to help others also lifts my spirits. Give your kids the gift of this awareness by starting a ‘tradition of sharing’ this year. Social service agencies always welcome help in their effort to make a tough season brighter for their client families. Your kids might even choose to part with some of their allowance money to buy a gift for a child near their own age. Or, invite others without plans to a special meal. My parents often made space at our holiday table for others. I remember feeling enriched and buoyed by their presence, their stories and the knowledge that we’d shared.
No matter how you celebrate the holidays, bear in mind that what your family will actually remember for years will be the absurd stuff that happens while you’re stirring the gravy. Several years ago my son Noah got car sick en route to Christmas dinner at my brother’s house. I doubt anyone remembers the menu, but I bet no one will ever forget our tale of the three hungry hound dogs who suddenly appeared and made off with Noah’s vomit-laden shirt as we scrambled to change him at the curb. Not exactly three wise men bearing gifts, but those hounds left us with a Flannery O’Connor-esque tale that I will never tire of telling.
So when your dog chases the kids through the living room yet again and the Christmas tree finally comes crashing to the floor just as your fussy Aunt Sally arrives, turn the oven down low, pour some egg nog (remember to share) and rally the troops for another round of tree-trimming.
But skip the tinsel this time.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1995 and is a featured blogger at chicagoparent.com.
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