Not-so-happy holidays

December 8, 2021

For many reasons, a lot of people find the holidays to be the most difficult time of the year. After all, this so-called “happiest time of the year” comes with high demands on our schedule, good nature and wallet. Those frequently impacted are introverts, those who have suffered a loss, people who have had difficult holiday experiences in the past and those who have experienced trauma, particularly within a relationship, but this list is far from exclusive.

Our society has become heavily invested in the glittering idea of the “very merry” holiday season, as evidenced by the billions of dollars we spend as a nation on gifts, decorating, food and entertaining each holiday season. Holiday advertising typically shows a smiling, happy family setting, where everyone is enjoying themselves and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. This hasn’t left a lot of room within the collective awareness for a common holiday experience, which is often one of struggle.

A common complaint is, “I feel like the weird one” or “No one understands why I feel the way I do about the holidays.” Well-meaning friends make jokes like, “Bah humbug!” but they’re neither helpful nor all that funny.

So those who don’t eagerly anticipate the holidays end up isolating themselves or surviving by faking it, forcing their way through the demands of holiday parties, shopping and family gatherings, becoming exhausted and spent by the end of it. This often presents as a sort of post-holiday depression, with people reporting a desire to further withdraw from their lives, a sense of sadness they can’t identify the source of and feelings of irritability or frustration. If this is the real cost of the holidays to a growing group, what can we do differently?

1. Stop faking it.

Be honest with yourself and those who care about you. If you’re having a hard time, those emotions are valid and they’re trying to communicate something important to you like, “This hurts!” Honour your feelings by creating some space for them rather than pushing them aside. This might include talking openly with someone you trust about how the holidays really feel for you or journaling about it.

2. Figure out what you need.

Introverts often talk about the holidays as being a nightmarish time of year where they stumble from one loud get-together to the next, with rarely a moment to recharge. If that’s you, schedule in some quiet time between commitments. If this seems impossible, maybe it’s time to re-think the number of gatherings you’re attending.

Those who are grieving notice their emotions are especially raw during the holidays, so stepping up your self-care and giving yourself permission to do less of everything can be the difference between burnout and a manageable (if not celebratory) holiday season.

Those who have experienced trauma – particularly within their family, during childhood for example – frequently describe a building tension as the holidays approach and decisions about seeing family draw near. Empowerment and a sense of one’s ability to remain safe – even from imagined threats – is the top priority. Take some time before the emotions and stress of the holidays take over to plan out what you’d like your days to look like. Don’t be afraid to send your regrets to that family gathering that always ends in conflict. Remember that genetic relatedness does not always equate to safe, warm and predictable bonds. As an adult, you get to choose who you call “family.”

3. Get creative.

People are creatively embracing a different festive spirit by opting for takeout rather than the demanding turkey dinner, skipping the $20 grab gift or getting away from it all – whether that’s a movie marathon in the basement with your “family” of choice or a tropical vacation.

Don’t be afraid to offer these suggestions. Often, there are others within the group feeling as you do but are too worried about being seen as Scrooge to speak up. Chances are, they’ll thank you later for taking the lead and you’ll all enjoy a more relaxed celebration.

4. Pick and choose how you use your resources.

You do not need to go to every single holiday party, gathering or dinner. Most of us have a standard list that is predictable from year to year. Christmas morning with the kids. Dinner with mom and dad. Dinner with the in-laws. Party at the neighbours. Staff party. Get together with friends.

The same exists with gifts, and in that category, the list can go far beyond the capacity of our bank account. Before the holidays even arrive, sit down and make a list of the events you typically receive invites to and the gifts you usually give. Be honest with yourself about how much time and money you can commit to these things (don’t forget – every gift bought is also time spent shopping) and still come out whole in January. This might mean you decide to skip the mall and instead make donations in the name of recipients and rotate your attendance at certain events – rather than doing your spouse’s work party first, then racing off to yours, which is always the same night, why not pick one and catch the other next year? You’ll likely have a better experience, even if you miss Mike’s annual table dance.

The holiday season can be a meaningful time for many. However, if your holiday memories haven’t typically been merry and bright, the most healing gift you can give yourself is that of permission to feel as you do. While these are some suggestions to get you started, ultimately it’s important to know that whatever you feel you need is worth considering, and that you’re not alone in your experience.

Counselling support from Manitoba Blue Cross

If you’re experiencing mental health concerns during the holidays or anytime, reach out for help. Manitoba Blue Cross’s counselling services are available to all Manitobans, regardless of whether or not you have coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross. Find the available support that's right for you here.

Unsure of your coverage? Confirm your eligibility in your mybluecross® account.

Article originally published in Manitoba Blue Cross’s be resilient newsletter. 

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