It’s Christmas again, and this year, I can’t seem to get into the mood.
True, the COVID pandemic with its restrictions about getting together doesn’t help, but that’s not the cause. This time of year has become associated with sad memories. It’s triggering for me.
I suspect I’m not alone.
This season used to make my dad blue. He’d withdraw from his family and become quieter than usual. I suspect the years he spent living with an alcoholic stepfather played a role in dampening his holiday spirits. He passed away eleven years ago.
My husband became depressed about now too. He’d look back over the past twelve months to see how he did with disappointment. He’d fail to see his financial gains, the completed projects, and new relationships in his life. For some reason, his successes never measured up.
I have great childhood Christmas memories. I grew up poor on a family farm in rural Michigan. Mom would cut my hair and sew most of my clothing. Dad would pick up a second job a few weeks ahead of the holidays, so there’d be money for gifts. Delicious home-cooked meals, plenty of story-telling, and lots of laughter made up for our lack of material things.
About mid-December, we’d get our first snowfall, which turned our drab brown landscape turned into a magical winter wonderland. Each night I would lie beside the Christmas tree where it stood next to the large picture window and watch the colored lights blink. Their reflection in the window twinkled in unison.
Through the windowpane, I’d watch the falling snow. I loved how large snowflakes traveled in a lazy pattern and blanketed the ground in what looked like fluffy white cotton.
Though I wasn’t sure if Santa was real, I’d pen a letter, just in case. My parents were sure to include a gift under the tree Christmas morning with Santa’s name. I’d tear off the wrapping to find a new doll or toy.
Farming life slowed in December as the nights grew long. Dad lingered around the kitchen table to enjoy his second or third cup of coffee. I’d pull a chair close and listen to his favorite tales. Mom often puttered in the kitchen, and soon the house would fill with the sweet scent of freshly baked cookies.
My feelings about Christmas changed after I left home and married. I found it hard to create the same cozy family feeling. I’d bake Christmas cookies and put up a tree. I’d fill our small apartment with the sound of seasonal music. But it wasn’t the same.
My three sons helped to make Christmas memorable again. I focused on making this time of the year wonderful for them and lived vicariously.
I loved the way their eyes would light as they watched the tree go up. They’d often pull off an ornament and bring it to me.
“I made this one,” they’d say with big grins.
I’d hugged them tight and kissed their cheeks that still tasted of lunch’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “Yes, you did! It’s one of my absolute favorites!”
They’d smile shyly.
Then I’d give them a pat on the backside, “Now, go put it back where you found it.” That rarely happened. I’d find the ornament hours later on the ground beside the tree.
Six years ago, everything changed. My husband became ill. The flu was making the rounds, and we figured he’d caught the bug. Only he didn’t get better. Despite my worries, I made a big Christmas meal for the family. He spent the night on the bathroom floor sick.
The next day, we learned he had a cancerous tumor just below the stomach, and he finished the holidays in the hospital.
My husband’s health rapidly deteriorated. The next five and a half months were brutal, with extensive surgeries and complicated recoveries. Each night, I privately cried, careful to keep him from seeing my tears.
My husband and I said goodbye. He fell into unconsciousness and passed away quietly.
Once the calendar rolls over to December, my body remembers. I’m weepier, get upset easier, and go through old photos. This time of year reminds me of him, and I miss him. Unintentionally, Christmas has become connected to that loss.
Christmas is painful for many of us.
It can trigger childhood memories, especially for those who’ve lived with abusive parents, and bump old wounds.
The holidays are filled with images of cheerful social gatherings. Television, magazine ads, and social media bombard us with what should be. We see large groups of people with smiling faces. Our life, in comparison, often can’t compete, which creates an uncomfortable gap between fantasy and reality.
That’s what my late husband did. He contrasted his life around this time of year with what he thought should be against what was. Many of us do. These idealized expectations, however, are an impossible standard, doomed to depress us.
It can also be a season of grief as it highlights the empty chairs around our dinner tables.
That’s me. I miss my husband terribly, even our annual fight of getting the freshly cut pine tree into its tree stand and the impossibility of buying him the right gift. I miss seeing his sheepish grin as he reached for his fifth cookie.
Should we avoid Christmas because it hurts? Good luck trying; I doubt it will work.
This year, I think we should try not only to survive, but thrive. Often the best coping strategy is to move into the pain rather than jerking away.
Here are a few helpful hints:
As for me, I will video chat with family back home and watch movies with two of my three grown sons. I think I’ll pause and take time to reflect on past Christmases and thank God for those beautiful memories.
Kerry Kerr McAvoy, a psychologist, author and writer, is in cultivating healthy relationships, deconstructing narcissism, and understanding various other mental health-related issues. Her novel based on a true story, which explores the devastating impacts of deceit and betrayal, is due out next year.