Holidays a potent time of year
A drive down Main Street this time of year will lead you past lit gas lamps, sparkling Christmas trees, waving Santas and, in the distance, snow-dusted mountain ranges. The town bells are chiming Christmas carols and children are performing seasonal shows to proud parents. Perhaps the most heart-rendering display is the piles of donated gifts and canned foods in various locations around town. What is it about this time of year that brings out the best in us, in our city, in our country?
For better and worse, Thanksgiving and Christmas are psychologically potent times of the year. When we think of the holiday season we think of traditions, excitement, joy and togetherness. People travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to spend time together, to reenact traditions handed down from generation to generation. While it has become somewhat commercialized, the act of giving each other gifts is truly a special thing.
The holiday season is also a marker in our lives: a first Christmas together as a couple, a baby’s first Thanksgiving, or an annual family vacation. It brings back important memories of holidays past.
I was in my early teens when my maternal grandparents died. But, no matter how old I am I will never forget my grandfather making my sisters and I wait in the back room while he donned his Santa outfit and my dad made “reindeer prancing” sounds. Moments later they shouted that Santa had come; we rushed from the back room to see that stockings had materialized out of nowhere, and we sat around the tree and unwrapped our gifts. My grandmother made her famous English pudding; we all sipped her “Bunny coffee,” and listened to Christmas music. Sadly, I will also never forget that first Christmas after my grandmother died, leaving my grandfather and my family heartbroken. Everything felt awful as we went through the motions of Christmas without her. As most of us know, it is excruciatingly painful to experience the holiday season when you are grieving in some way.
So, while the holiday season can be emotionally wonderful, it is also a sorrowful time of year for many. This is because at painful points in our life our internal experience doesn’t match the seasonal hype and festivities surrounding us, which intensifies feelings of pain and loneliness.
Remember that many folks out there are just plain stressed out. Some are working overtime hours in the harried Christmas shopping world. They are likely exhausted at this point. For others, family togetherness may not be a positive experience. Sometimes this is because of plain old “family dynamics,” but for others, they may be visiting relatives who have mistreated them in some way. Others may be alone and unable to be with loved ones. Some parents feel overwhelmed as they try to provide their children with presents they really can’t afford. And, the pain of a recent break-up, death, miscarriage, or chronic illness or mental illness doesn’t fade during the holidays, and may actually intensify.
At the risk of sounding too cliche, perhaps the best gift we can give to fellow community members is an understanding that this may be a very hard time of year for them. This year try remembering that grouchy, rude, or avoidant people are likely exhausted, stressed, angry, or sad. Instead of reacting negatively in return, turn the other cheek, ask if they are “OK,” ask if you can help, smile, be nice. Don’t expect a positive response back, and understand they may not have it to give.
Some friends of ours aren’t giving each other presents this Christmas. Instead, they adopted four needy families and are giving them presents and a Christmas meal. They say they have never experienced more Christmas excitement and feel “positively giddy” every time they image these unknown people opening their gifts. Embracing this sentiment, give to others as much as you realistically can. Even if you can’t spare a dime, be more patient, understanding, and emotionally pleasant to our community members this year. The true Christmas spirit is infectious. When we are in a good spot in our lives and give it, it is likely to flow back to us when we need it.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.