When it’s not “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

bench, foggy winter day

Ten years ago, while grieving the sudden loss of my father, I decided to actively avoid the build-up leading to Christmas. Thanksgiving had nearly done me in, and I couldn’t handle an entire month of cheer accompanying another grief milestone.

My plan? Avoid the mall. Or any store that might play Christmas music. Only buy presents for my immediate family. No wrapping – just gift bags. Don’t open any mail that looked like a Christmas card. Don’t decorate. Definitely don’t watch any Christmas movies. And for the love, avoid any and all versions of “The Christmas Shoes” at all costs.

My plan worked for about a day. But then my coworkers started listening to Christmas music at their desks. I started receiving e-mails about holiday parties. The stores below my loft were decked out with tinsel and lights. Everyone else was leaning way in to the magic of the season, and I could hardly breathe. What was once my favorite time of year slowly but surely threatened to destroy me.

My grief and depression didn’t manifest itself as sadness. At least, not all the time. It mostly manifested itself as a blackout rage.

The month of December made me furious. For the first time in my life, it was not “the most wonderful time of the year.” It was a mirror, reflecting everything I’d lost.

Every gift from my secret Santa was a reminder that I had one less person to shop for. Every Christmas card a reminder that my family had a gaping hole that would never be filled. Every party was hours of torture, trying to appear festive and light while swimming in darkness. I hated it. Every minute of it.

For many of our friends and family, the holiday season will be the final highlight of a year that included unimaginable joy: a wedding, a birth, a promotion, an exciting new chapter in life. And for just as many, the new chapters are dark and sluggishly slow: an illness, a divorce, depression, grief, or death.

There are times when “leaning in” to the holidays really can help change your mindset. You fake holiday cheer long enough and eventually you experience the real thing. If that has worked for you, wonderful! I’ve done that, too, and I’ll honestly do quite a bit of that this year.

But for some of us, December will be the most painful month we’ve experienced in an already painful year. It will feel as if there’s nothing worth celebrating, and we’ll feel guilty for dragging others down. The contrast of joy around us and despair within us will be too confusing. Too bittersweet. Too devastating.

For some of us, this will be the one holiday season in our lives that we simply can’t handle. If that’s true for you or someone you love, my message is this: it’s okay to “lean out” this year.

• You don’t have to decorate your house or put up a tree.
• You don’t have to send holiday cards.
• You don’t have to accept any holiday party invitations.
• You don’t have to buy presents.
• You don’t have to honor family traditions.
• You don’t have to be festive and cheerful.
• You don’t have to succumb to the pressure to make the season magical for everyone else.

Your one job this year is to make it through the season.

Maybe that means December just looks like any other month. Maybe that means you only accept a few holiday invites instead of over-scheduling yourself. Maybe you forgo gift giving and instead volunteer your time. Maybe you reach out to someone else who is hurting, and you quietly acknowledge the season together. Maybe you schedule a vacation and spend the holidays in a new city. If you are religious, maybe this is the year you strip the season down to its origin.

It’s okay to simplify. It’s often crucial to simplify.

This holiday season might just be one painful struggle after another. And it’s okay to acknowledge that and operate accordingly.

It might not be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but you will get through it. And there will be the promise of a new year.

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