I had all kinds of thoughts about publishing a post this week with pictures of the pretty Christmas things around my home – the tree, the wreath on the door, our little penguin collection, and the advent calendar that our kids love. Maybe I would get a batch of cookies baked and take a picture of them, too.
But first, I would have to adjust the tree ornaments the kids have moved around. Pick up the ones that have dropped on the floor. Smooth out the tree skirt. Clean up the mish-mash of blankets, pillows, and teddy bears surrounding the tree. Push aside the dirty dishes to reveal the advent calendar sitting on the counter behind them. Glue together the decorations that have broken. And so on, and so on.
Which got me to thinking about something more interesting, to me, than those picture-perfect Christmas displays: the messes. Not awful kinds of messes, but the big, beautiful ones that come along with lives being lived. The messes that you see when you enter the home of a family that has young children. Gravel on the entrance floor. Dishes on the counter, and maybe the remnants of lunch. Toys scattered about. Small people dashing from room to room. Half-way completed craft projects shoved into corners. Pieces of laundry to trip over.
I get embarrassed when my house looks like that, if anyone unexpectedly drops by. However, if I walk into another person’s house, and it looks like that, I breathe a sigh of relief. Ah…they, too, are normal. I don’t think about how they should have picked up the mess before I dropped by. I marvel at the messes – at the stories the messes tell. The kinds of foods their children like (or don’t like), and the dishes they eat (or don’t eat) out of. The creativity displayed by their projects on-the-go. The powdering of flour and icing sugar on the floor, and the smell of cookies hanging in the air. What they had been doing outside, before their wet mittens and boots were hurriedly deposited at the door.
My son attends a weekly kids’ club at our church. I feel a little overwhelmed, when I walk into that room to pick him up. 8 year-old boys hardly ever stop moving, so the entire place seems to shift ceaselessly, like an anthill. The air is saturated with the smell of laundry soap and fabric softener, because the kids keep so busy that their bodies heat up and release the fragrances of their clothes. There are, er…other smells too – some not so pleasant.
And in the midst of it all, are the volunteer leaders. Adults in the mix of children, a couple at each table. They smile, and chat with the kids, and make sure they’re not causing too much trouble or getting hurt. They seem relaxed – tired, perhaps – but at home within the big, beautiful mess.
It makes me think of God. Isn’t that kind of how He is, in-amongst the big, beautiful mess of people He has created? Read through the Bible, and you will find things in there that would make most Sunday school teachers cringe. It is messy business, this thing He is doing. But He’s committed! So much so, that He made His home within the mess that we all are.
It’s not always pretty, or clean, or orderly. But it’s real, and amazing. It’s Christmas!
With the warmest of wishes for a big, messy, beautiful Christmas –
In part 1 of this post, I shared about the emotional struggles that I sometimes experience at Christmas time. I identified two possible reasons why this may happen, and gave suggestions of how to cope. To read it you may click this link:
Today, I will discuss three more reasons why a person may feel sad at Christmas, along with possible coping strategies. Perhaps you will be able to identify with some of these ideas.
3. Changes over time create feelings of loss.
As people grow older, the dynamics of a family change dramatically. There are marriages, addition of children, and deaths. Someone in the family may have grown ill. Perhaps people have moved away, or choose not to be involved with the family any more. Children may have left the nest. Divorces may have occurred. Parents may have grown old and are unable to host gatherings in their home, so alternate arrangements have to be made. The home you grew up in may have been sold. Maybe you used to always get together on Christmas Day, or always had brunch, or always gave each other gifts, and for some reason this cannot happen anymore. All of these changes over time, normal as they may be, can create feelings of loss. Christmas just isn’t the way it used to be…and that hurts.
I would suggest that you acknowledge the loss, and give yourself permission to mourn it if needed. You may want to read this post, which discusses how the passage of time can lead to emotional pain.
Keep those old, good memories locked away somewhere, and treasure them. You could reminisce by looking at photos or videos of past Christmases, or putting a scrapbook together to preserve them. If someone you love has passed on, how may you cherish their memory? Perhaps you could make a donation in their name. Or create or purchase an ornament to place on the Christmas tree in their honor.
And finally, don’t let your grief blind you to the good things happening in the present. Some time in the future, today’s Christmas may become the ‘good old days’ for you or your children. Love your people while they’re here, as best as you possibly can.
4. Expectations and hopes may lead to feelings of overwhelm.
The holidays have been romanticized to a level of perfection that is usually unreachable. This is very easy to be drawn into, even if you strive to keep things simple. There is so much build-up to the various events and trimmings of Christmas and New Year’s: the baking, the cooking, the gifts, the tree, the decorations, the parties, the gatherings, the sparkling eyes of children, and the thrill of romantic relationships. In Christmas movies and jewellery commercials, each detail comes together with absolute perfection. However, this is not an expectation that is healthy to bring into real life.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, is there something you can cut from your schedule? Although I love Christmas baking, there have been some years when I haven’t done any of it, and just bought chocolates instead. Last year, for Christmas Day dinner, my family and I had taco salad. We all enjoyed it, and nobody had to stress or slave in the kitchen.
If your gift-buying budget is small, perhaps you can cut a few people from your list. Siblings? Nieces and nephews? Your child’s teachers? Do they all need gifts? Would a simple card suffice? If appropriate, you may want to inform them in advance of any changes: “I’m feeling overwhelmed with Christmas preparations, and our finances are strained. I won’t be able to buy a gift for you this year.”
Thankfully, I think that children in particular can be satisfied with very little. They usually don’t need the largest or most expensive gifts to be pleased on Christmas morning. We’ve cut back on what we spend on our kids, and I don’t expect them to be any less happy because of it.
5. The holidays can be physically draining.
The children are home from school, so the house is busier. You may be travelling long distances, or staying away from home. Get-togethers with friends and family go on for many hours, and you go to bed later. You have additional responsibilities such as shopping for and wrapping gifts, cleaning, decorating, hosting, cooking, and baking. Depending on where you live, it may be colder and darker outside, like it is where I am. If so, you may not get much fresh air, sunshine, or exercise. You may consume more sweets, junk food, and alcoholic beverages than usual, while not having time for your usual self-care routines. These things, taken together, impact your physical well-being and increase your tiredness, which can significantly impact your mood.
Perhaps this is a simplified answer, but a good sleep can do wonders. If you get a chance to grab an early bedtime, or an occasional nap, go for it!
Regarding exercise – I have found that the most difficult part of getting active, or bundling up and going outside, is getting started. But when I do, I feel physically better for the entire day! If the weather is nice, I may take my kids tobogganing or skating. If I’m just too wimpy to brave the cold, I enjoy about 30 minutes of brisk walking on our treadmill. Do what works for you, and reap the benefits!
And since it is potluck season, remember that healthy foods are welcome additions to table spreads that usually contain an overabundance of fatty, sugary, carbohydrate-laden foods. Bring a tray of fruit or vegetables, and watch it be devoured! Maybe you’ll even eat some of it yourself.
This list, of course, is not comprehensive. But if you are struggling emotionally, I believe there is great value in acknowledging that fact, identifying what the causes may be, and taking whatever steps you can to address them. Even when you do these things, however, the holidays may still be stressful and difficult! All we can do is our best, as we try to focus on the blessings in our lives.
I pray that God will give you peace this season, and infuse Christmas with the kind of meaning that circumstances and emotions cannot deplete!
Before heading home from a family gathering, you take a drive with your husband and kids to look at Christmas lights. Everything’s going fine. Suddenly, however, you are flooded with intense feelings of sadness that catch you off-guard. You stare out your window (supposedly engrossed by the beautiful views) and hope that no one notices the flood of tears coming down your cheeks.
It’s New Year’s Eve. The kids are in bed, and it’ll be a low-key night for you and your spouse. Snacks from the leftovers in the fridge, maybe a glass of wine, and fireworks on the TV – if you can stay up late enough to catch them. But for some reason, you’re having a hard time keeping yourself together. Every 20 minutes or so, you nonchalantly retreat to the bedroom. There you lay on the bed, cry quietly until it’s out of your system, and return to the living room…hoping your spouse doesn’t see the red rims around your eyes.
Either of these scenarios sound familiar? They do to me, because they are personal examples!
Many people feel sad, or depressed, during the winter months. The holidays may be an especially challenging time. The impression I get from what I read and hear on the topic, however, is that people who have recently lost a family member or undergone a traumatic event, or who are clinically diagnosed with depression, are most prone to struggling.
I’m sure that’s true. However, I don’t really fit any of those categories – and yet, I struggle. Maybe you, like me, have a pretty good life. And yet, Christmas rolls around, and it’s just hard. Overwhelming emotions blindside you. Or your energy is totally zapped, and you can hardly accomplish a thing. There may be many reasons for this, as every person and situation is unique. However, I have compiled a list of 5 possible causes, and suggestions of how to cope. Perhaps you will be able to identify with some of these ideas. (I will address the first 2 points today, and will share the remaining 3 next Friday.)
1. Buried or hidden memories and feelings are brought to the surface.
The holidays are a naturally reflective time. Another year is ending, and we may find ourselves re-living strong emotions, or dwelling on memories of past events. To top it off, we are surrounded by music, movies, and messages that are designed to tap into tender feelings. Music, in particular, is proven to be strongly linked to memories. Christmas songs that you hear every year may carry you back to your past in a powerful way. This is sometimes uplifting, but it can also be painful.
As feelings or memories are elicited, it is usually healthier to deal with and process them directly, rather than dismiss or avoid them. My favorite way of doing this is through prayer. The Spirit of Jesus is always present to help me carry my emotional burdens; He has never failed me – not one single time.
Some people may find it helpful to talk things through with a trusted person or counsellor. Others may prefer to write it out in a journal, or express what they are feeling through some other creative medium.
And let us not underestimate the power of a good sense of humour, to balance all of the emotive, wistful stuff. Is there someone who can always make you laugh? Spend time with them (my husband is great for this). Or put away the tear-jerkers for a while, and watch a funny movie (“Christmas with the Kranks,” anyone?).
2. Holidays bring us into the presence of family members.
Family members bless us and give us a sense of belonging, so there may be joy in seeing them again. However, if you struggle with an unhealthy level of comparison, you may feel less satisfied with your life after seeing siblings or cousins who seem happier, better off, or more successful than you in some way.
Also, if your relationships with family members are not healthy, family gatherings can elicit negative feelings such as anger, sadness, or anxiety. If there is so much division that you do not see your family members anymore, Christmas is a time when you will likely be reminded of this fact.
There aren’t really any short-cuts to dealing with weighty issues such as these. However, on the topic of comparisons, gratitude and thankfulness – focusing on the things in your life that are going well and that you are thankful for – can be helpful. Remember that you, and your spouse and kids, are uniquely and wonderfully made. Your lives will not be the same as your siblings’ lives. And that is totally ok.
Even when you are going through struggles that the rest of your family doesn’t understand or appreciate, remember that God sees you. His purpose is to work good from the trial that you are experiencing.
Regarding difficult relationships, you may find it helpful to learn about healthy boundaries. Boundary issues may be at the root of a whole host of problems. Click here for my past post on relational boundaries, and a suggestion of a book to read on the topic.
Otherwise, if you can think of a kind, appropriate, reasonable gesture to extend to your family members, go ahead and do it. (Without the expectation of receiving anything in return.) A simple greeting card? A short phone call, email, or hand-written note? A small gift or helpful act? Try not to worry about the spirit in which they receive it – only the spirit in which it is given. If possible, spread your love in some small way, as difficult as the circumstances may be. Even if the person doesn’t receive it well, you will know that you are trying to do the right thing.
How about you? Do you experience difficult feelings during the holidays? What do you think is behind them? How do you cope? I would love to hear your ideas in the comments section below.
And I look forward to touching base again next Friday, when I will discuss 3 more possible causes for sadness at Christmas time.