Reclaiming Christmas: How to Find Joy in Stressful Holidays

Updated on January 6, 2018
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ALorenaE is an aspiring novelist living in the rust belt. She has a two small children, though often it seems like a few hundred.

Photograph of vintage cardboard cutout Santa ornament with gold outlines.  He stands in front of a metal sunflower and beside antique blue glass.  There is a baby doll seen only in part on the photo's left side.
Photograph of vintage cardboard cutout Santa ornament with gold outlines. He stands in front of a metal sunflower and beside antique blue glass. There is a baby doll seen only in part on the photo's left side.

Christmas is an important holiday to the childhood of many of us. We remember traditions with our families, the gifts we have received, and the people with whom we've shared this holiday. As time goes on, the holidays can become difficult; we lose people, the lack of their presence brings up happy memories and the continual realization we won't share this time with them again.

But sometimes, it is Christmas itself we grieve, rather than the losses of people we love. Sometimes, this is because we lose something of the holiday- we move, the people with whom we celebrate changes, or the symbols that have been such a part of our lives are no longer available to us. I have a creche that belonged to my grandmother. I set it up for years throughout my childhood. Once I moved away, I no longer had this tradition in my life. The loss stung. I inherited this item when she passed, so I now have it in my life again, but the years without it were definitely missing something. I grieved the loss of the tradition. This is not true for only myself. There are others who find the same thing. Meaningful traditions from childhood vanish after a certain age. Perhaps our parents think we are too old for them, the objects involved are lost or broken, or they belong to someone else.

Antique creche featuring Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus alongside sheep, shepherds, a donkey, and a single wiseman.  A snowman angel sits to one side, there is a dreamcatcher over the baby, and a Christmas bell in front of the scene.
Antique creche featuring Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus alongside sheep, shepherds, a donkey, and a single wiseman. A snowman angel sits to one side, there is a dreamcatcher over the baby, and a Christmas bell in front of the scene.

As children, many of us find magic in the holiday- there are stories of Santa, the wonder of the Christmas Star, and the shining beauty of the lights decorating houses and trees. We look in awe at the way people celebrate, ornamenting themselves, their homes, in ways we don't see any other time of year. It is special to a child to see something so different for the first time, to anticipate it each year.

As we grow up, the holidays become more stressful. We become the ones who decorate and it turns from fun to an obligation. We write out the holiday cards we used to thrill over seeing in the mail and the ones our friends send us start to all look the same. We wonder if they are sending them because they really miss us or, like us, if they are sending them because they feel like they have to. We take on the responsibility of finding a tree, cutting it, hauling it down from the attic, whichever, and it isn't nearly as fun as seeing our parents lash it onto the roof of the car or assembling it from the box. The aggravation is now ours to bear. Perhaps we also lose the ability to enjoy giving gifts to others, instead seeing it as a financial drain instead of finding the joy we did as children in seeing another face light up with the appreciation for something we'd carefully selected or made. Now, maybe, we put something together last-minute or we buy the least expensive gift we can that we think might be practical. And lastly, we now bundle ourselves and maybe our kids together in the car to visit family, the excitement of seeing people with whom we rarely spend time drowned out by the stress of packing suitcases, gifts, toiletries, medications, toys, that one blanket without which the toddler will not sleep...the list goes on and sometimes we wonder if seeing those relatives are really worth seeing at all.

We miss the holidays we once knew, the fun, the joy, the laughter and excitement of all the surprises waiting for us on Christmas morning or the beauty of the midnight service on Christmas Eve, which may now be something we just don't have time for.

But maybe we need to find a way to reclaim Christmas.

Close up of an oversized jingle bell topped with red and plaid ribbon and white mistletoe flowers.
Close up of an oversized jingle bell topped with red and plaid ribbon and white mistletoe flowers.

Some ideas on how to reclaim Christmas from the overwhelming stress and the sense of loss that may come with the holiday:

  1. Look for what was at the heart of the traditions that made Christmas special. Was it being around certain people? A ritual such as putting up a tree or eating a certain food?
  2. Identify what is keeping you from doing this thing now and find ways to incorporate an element of them into your holiday. If someone died, can you find a way to include something that reminds you of them in your celebration? If you lost an object that was a part of a ritual, can you find something similar or represent a part of it in your traditions? Can you learn to cook a special food or find a friend or relative who knows how and can do it for you? Or a restaurant that specializes in a certain kind of food that reminds you of it?
  3. Consider what traditions, for good or bad, that have replaced them. Do they fill your soul? Do they make you happy? Do you need to simplify your holidays? An anecdote- a friend of mine was running to three different family celebrations on Christmas day. Everyone was exhausted by the end of the day and she began to realize that they weren't truly enjoying the time they were spending at each event. So she asked her child what visits meant the most. There was only one. And so the following year, they told the relatives they would visit or keep in touch in other ways and they made their Christmas what they needed to for their own family. This is important. If the holidays are filled with meaningless rituals and visits that don't suit you, you aren't going to enjoy the holidays. Find other ways to maintain the relationships important to you and create a holiday season that fills your soul, rather than depletes it.
  4. Remember that it isn't about stuff. You don't need to buy or make everyone a gift. Your presence in someone's life should bring them joy. While gifts are nice, no one should feel obligated to give if it doesn't have meaning, if it's an obligation, or if they just can't afford it. The experiences we have together should be far more important than our possessions. If someone in your life can't accept that, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the relationship. Some families go to the movies on Christmas. Some go to a restaurant. Some plan a special outing or make a purchase that will make them all happy together (one year, my husband and I spent our Christmas money on DVDs we could all enjoy as a family). The holidays shouldn't be about objects.
  5. Ask yourself if the holiday is still something you want to celebrate. If it doesn't have meaning anymore, you are allowed to stop. You shouldn't damage the experience of others, but you also don't have to spend the energy on something that makes you miserable. Find ways to spend the holidays that make you feel contentment and be at peace.

It is possible to find peace and happiness in a holiday that has become something difficult to endure. Self-care during the holidays may look different for different people, but sometimes it means change and that is perfectly acceptable. Or it may mean shedding the holiday. But either way, may the season suit you and your family, not your family be forced into the season that makes you regret trying to celebrate it.

© 2017 A Lorena

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