Christmas blues. A common phenomenon according to most psychiatrists, as well as all the articles about “surviving” the holidays highlighted on the covers of most women’s magazines each year from September through December. And the number one source of most holiday angst according to these experts and articles? Family.
How cruelly ironic that the very purpose of the holidays causes many folks to abuse their Prozac, spend too much time with Jack Daniels, and otherwise self medicate. Even more cruel since holiday gatherings have long been immortalized in songs and movies as the time to cherish family moments. But few homes resemble the insinuations of a Norman Rockwell painting. This is the twenty-first century where dysfunction is the norm (so much so that the editors at Webster’s should consider revising the definition, from “failure to perform normally” to “performing like the majority of its kind”).
This year another likely source of Christmas blues is the lack of disposable income that makes the holidays all the more cheerless. December is the time when consumers are given permission to indulge, a permission that is welcome when every other month of the year consists of watching the budget and striving to be practical. But in 2011, pinching pennies is a daily, not monthly, workout: Maybe I’ll forgo the Starbucks and suck up the office brew…I could save a lot of gas if I blew off that 40-mile trip to see Great Aunt Bessie at the nursing home…Maybe I should give up that gym membership and work out at home; canned peaches make for good weights, right?
Christmas is a bundle of conundrums beyond family and money, all of which get in the way of the pursuit of what we really want and that which is truly fleeting—recapturing the magical experience of our childhood. We fall for this every year, expecting that somehow this time, this year, we can create what cannot be recreated. (Sort of like how we get sucked into believing those infomercials if we watch long enough…Maybe I really can look like Cindy Crawford if I just buy her skin care line.) Even when we have children of our own we get fooled into thinking the vicarious thrill will satiate us, only to learn that Coca Cola was right all along--there's nothing like the real thing After all, that Christmas morning when you were 5 or 7 or 9 and it was all so damned amazing. Christmas can only go downhill once you discover there that No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus and gradually realize that Christmas is more about marketing and quarterly earnings than flying reindeer and candy cottages. But that doesn’t mean enjoying the holidays is hopeless. You just have to have a strategy.
For me, I keep expectations low. A low bar is easier on the psyche, much easier on the liquor cabinet, and far simpler to exceed than a high one. It’s just one day after all. Who cares if your sister gives you a fruitcake disguised as an actual present, if Grampa belches to the tune of Jingle Bells during dessert, or if Uncle Frank actually thinks his tasteless jokes are funny? It’s more fun to laugh about what you cannot change than go through an unproductive exercise in futility. And so what if you don’t get the best gift ever or can’t provide one for everyone on your list? Maybe you can’t recreate that magic of your childhood, but you could for someone else, a child or family struggling with hard times. Need is something there is never a shortage of.
In the scheme of things, most of us suffer minor holiday blues compared to some of the major ones going on around us—families losing their homes, children struggling with disease, seniors who must choose between paying for prescription medication or heat, and on and on. And for those with major blues, it’s hard not to allow the holidays to exacerbate the feelings.That’s when it’s best to keep in mind this inevitable truth: It'll all be over in a few days, and soon enough we can all return to our baseline, everyday angst.