I’ll have a Blue Christmas, with or without you. I don’t think it’s any big secret that the holidays can be a stressful and challenging time for many. Folks set high expectations to create the picture-perfect holiday, complete with garlands, five-course feasts, jolly conversation around a roaring fire, and the season’s most hard-to-get gifts sitting peacefully under the tree. It can be a tough blow when arguments erupt at the dinner table or a Nor’easter delays your flight home. Many of us have experienced a Blue Christmas by the time we’ve reached adulthood. The season feels different from then on, knowing there’s a small crack in that snow globe of memories from our childhood. Rather than patching things up and trudging through the season, I’m reflecting on my Blue Christmas and managing holiday expectations this year. It’s important to take care of yourself. Give yourself the gift of setting the bar low.
Ghosts of Christmas Past
Have you been paid a visit from the ghosts of Christmas past? The holidays are not always a happy time for folks. They’re actually quite complex. This time of year can be a melancholy period of reflection on past sadness, people you’ve lost, or relationships that have faltered. I have a wonderful small family of four and a close relationship with one of my sisters and her husband, for which I’m especially grateful. However, my extended family is disjointed and disconnected…at least more so than when I was a kid. Those severed ties hit me hard during the holidays.
As a kid, I had a close-knit family made up of my mom, dad, and sister, Patience, all living happily under one roof. I also had seven older siblings, many with wives and kids of their own. I was an aunt at birth, and the family kept expanding, which made for large, magical Christmas gatherings. The festivities seemed to go on for days, with cherished hours spent sharing delicious foods, watching football, talking walks around the lit-up block, and listening to Grease and Duran Duran albums with my nieces (who were actually the same age as me). However, I would soon experience my first Blue Christmas, and things would no longer be the same.
One year, there was a terrible family blow-up that fractured my world in a way that is so profound that I am still dealing with the fallout. At this time, my small family consisted of my mother, my sister, and myself. My father had suddenly passed away just two holidays before. After the debris settled from the explosion, we were cut off from most of the extended family. In many ways, this second loss felt even more catastrophic than my father’s passing.
We spent the next Christmases pretending everything was OK, and we eventually found our way into new traditions and ways to celebrate. However, the impact has never gone away. Decades later, many of us have worked to re-establish family ties, but that childhood feeling is gone forever. I’m still living with this ghost of Christmas past.
Good Grief, Charlie Brown
I am certainly not alone in experiencing grief during the holidays. We don’t need to look any further than Charlie Brown bending under the holiday pressures like his sapling tree. Many families suffer breakups, losses, and arguments that affect how they celebrate the holidays. These familial setbacks don’t mean that there isn’t new happiness to be found, but it is futile to pretend that these past memories don’t affect us during this “joyful” season.
With time and age, I’ve been able to understand what my family was coping with during those troubled times. Now, as an adult, I can better navigate my grief. No good comes from trying to cover up our past experiences with shiny ornaments and lights. However, something good does come from sharing it and knowing folks are feeling the same things.
When I was younger, I don’t think anyone helped me through my grief better than David Sedaris. Holidays on Ice and Santaland Diaries offer a collection of cynical, dark, and utterly hysterical stories centered around those not-so-great holiday times. He made me feel less alone because I knew someone else out there had experienced holiday grief like me.
Whether you’re dealing with holiday melancholy or a bout of seasonal depression, these stories serve as a reminder that it’s OK to feel grief. Not every holiday will live up to the magic, but there’s still something good to be found in reality, too.
The Gift of Low Expectations
You don’t have to suffer the loss of a family member, a breakup, or a family schism to experience sadness around the holidays. Sometimes, the feeling is just pervasive. It comes wrapped up in gloomy, blustery days and crowded shopping malls. I think the best gift you can give yourself this year is the gift of low expectations. Let me share my wishlist.
Feel Your Feelings
Allow yourself to feel whatever comes up during this time, even grief. Holidays are hard for many, and may not feel joyful all season long.
Lower the Bar
Many of us approach entertaining and hosting all wrong. We spend so much time preparing the perfect Christmas dinner that we don’t enjoy a single minute. Set realistic expectations for the holidays, and don’t force them to be perfect.
Take the Season as It Comes
Christmas starts on the 25th and runs for 12 days. Take the pressure off the big day and pace yourself. Spend those full 12 days enjoying things you love to do and create moments that give opportunity for connection without setting a goal for a specific feeling or outcome.
The holidays are never picture-perfect. Allow yourself to feel the holiday grief, break tradition, and celebrate the way you and your family need to. That may just mean curling up and watching your favorite holiday movie, and that’s OK.
Maybe it can be a wonderful life.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.