I was talking with my Mom the other day about how there is this sadness to Christmastime. This is something that until the last few years I haven’t really gotten. Christmas is almost always a wonderfully jolly time for me, it’s full of so many happy memories, I get to spend time with my family, I love all the traditions, the decorations, the movies, the music… There were some rough patches, certainly, with my parents’ divorce. But Christmas was a light then too, even if it did become a little more complicated.
These last few years, I have felt more of this…underlying melancholy. And I know lots of people experience it, I have a few friends who don’t like Christmas music ‘because it’s sad’, and my Mom’s husband doesn’t like hardly anything about Christmas because it makes him sad. Last year I wrote about how I was missing the Christmas spirit until I got to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special with my Mom, and that seemed to do the trick. This year, while I am still struggling with a lot of things and there is no small amount of stress and unrest in various areas of my life, I have gotten several good doses of that Christmas spirit, so I’m less worried about myself this year.
But my Mom and I are wanting to get her husband a little more into things (in part because it’s not fun when he doesn’t want to participate in anything, and it’s heartbreaking to not be able to share the seasonal joy somehow), and so here we were discussing this phenomenon and the reasons behind it. I’ve never fully understood why people feel so sad at Christmastime, not fully. We talked about seasonal depression, with less light and such (it’s overcast here almost all the time now), and being away from family and alone at Christmas, the stress of the season, and the one reason cited most often by her husband, the commercialisation of Christmas. My Mom and I, sliding smoothly into problem-solving mode, considered a few things that might help counteract these things, but I felt rather…dissatisfied. Because this is not something I’ve had much firsthand experience with so I cannot speak from experience, nor have I done any research on it so I can’t give conclusions based on that either.
Naturally, I came home and began researching :o)
Google immediately provided a plethora of results citing this spike in depression around the holidays, lots of tips to ‘beat the blues’ and such. Which was rather frustrating because they did not explain why there is this spike around holidays, why it often seems to relate directly to the holidays save when people are made more aware of family strife or lack of family to spend time with, and these articles just said the same things that a standard article on depression would say. These things are helpful, I know, but it bothers me that a season that is built around joy and love and light and family and friends and giving and humanity at its best and hope could generate this kind of depression. It makes no sense to me, there had to be something out of the ordinary that made this a phenomenon related to Christmas rather than always being cyclical depression.
After some more digging, I found a few particularly helpful articles: “The Science of Sad Christmas Songs” and “Understand & Coping with the Christmas Blues”, as well as the comments on this post, “Why Does Christmas Music Make Me Feel Sad?” The first article discusses how we can actually like sad music because it helps us experience and release those feelings of sadness, purge them, as well as to explore them more deeply and gain a kind of strength from doing so. This is something I have experienced; there was a time I got really frustrated with Buffy: The Vampire Slayer because there was always something going wrong, something heartachy, until I learned to embrace the sadness, embrace that ache, not to cling to it or wallow in it, but to genuinely experience it, appreciate it, and allow it to be part of my life in a good way (just not my entire life). Then I read this line: “Some experts suggest that it’s not the music that’s sad, there is something else in our lives making us sad that needs to be addressed.” This too tracked with my own past experience. Several years, I have struggled with feeling homesick, overwhelmingly so sometimes, and I would start decorating for Christmas in October to focus myself on something that made me feel happy to counteract it, to keep myself from sinking into a deep depression until I could go home. It worked really well, and now that my Mom lives close to me the homesickness isn’t nearly so bad (I always miss home at least a little, all the same). Last year, I know some of my sadness came from a sense of loss and discord in certain relationships, until I could focus decently on Christmas (thank you, Linus).
So this was a little helpful, regarding my own experience, but it still didn’t explain the Christmas-specific blues. Sad music makes people feel sad, not just sad Christmas music. And friends who have told me they don’t like Christmas music have not said they don’t like songs like “Blue Christmas” or “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, but rather all Christmas music makes them feel sad.
Cue article #2. The crux of the article states:
“This time of year is especially difficult because there’s an expectation of feeling merry and generous. People compare their emotions to what they assume others are experiencing or what they’re supposed to feel. Then they think that they alone fall short. They judge themselves and feel like an outsider.”
The article goes on to note that this is a very stressful time, with added financial pressure, business, loneliness, grief from missing a deceased loved one, estrangement, trying to please one’s relatives, etc. It’s a high-pressure holiday, with apparently high standards…or at least, that’s the prevailing perception.
So this got me thinking. Christmas has always been a notably emotional time. When I was a child there was so much excitement, intense emotion, joy. It’s so vivid sometimes that I feel like I’m 6 years old again. Then as I grew up, the emotion changed. It’s less about the surprise on Christmas morning and more about just getting to go home and see the people I love. Getting to share the traditions and music and movies and food that we all loved together for as long as I can remember. Still a deep joy. Then it became mingled with grief. Grief that my family is never fully together. Sometimes someone can’t make it to the family dinner. Grandparents have been lost and are deeply missed. Add to all this the traditions and decorations, all the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of the season, and all the years of memories attached to these…whether I am fully aware of it or not, I think there are all those memories of emotions from past Christmases also being re-experienced. It’s a tumultuous time, and the older I get the more Yuletide history gets unearthed each year.
Then, too, there is the focus of Christmas. Peace on Earth. Goodwill to all Men. Now, I love this. This is the heart of Christmas for me. Personally, I see this in a more religious context than some, but even for those who are not religious I feel that Christmas is a time when everyone, all of humanity, is at its best. I love it. Christmas is the light in the darkness.
But how many times is there that melancholy note in a Christmas tale? That mournful, lamenting tune in a song? It’s not directing us solely to look at that light, but at the darkness which needs that light. And that, oh that is the sadness I tend to experience this time of year. I think there are a lot of people, and my Mom’s husband is one of them, who are more inclined to see all these surrounding issues, the darkness and gloom. People in need. People often forgotten until this time of year. So much suffering and neglect. Broken homes. Broken relationships. Broken lives. And this contrasts brutally with the sparkly decorations, and the rich eggnog, and then twinkling lights, because there are so many people outside of this joy, so much that is painful and desperate and forgotten and abandoned, and it just makes you want to cry, your heart aches so much
No wonder we aren’t entirely sure why. We end up almost plagued with all these deeply emotional triggers, and I haven’t even gotten to how advertising also tries to play our emotions and deliberately activate certain emotional triggers (don’t worry, I won’t, this isn’t that kind of post).
I narrowed the issue down to this: we have this beautiful, perfect image that we think is the standard for holidays. And when things don’t line up, whether it’s the rest of our life the rest of the year, our relationships, grieving the loss of being together due to divorce or estrangement or death, the stress of having to deal with difficult people, remembering that there is so much wrong in the world and maybe we haven’t done all we could or should, or maybe it’s never going to be enough, and it all feels either futile or like it’s a sparkly shell and nothing more, and all these things steal our joy because comparatively we aren’t measuring up to that standard.
Christmastime is when everything is at its best. That’s why I love it so incredibly much. It makes us pause and look at things in the most hopeful light, how things could be. It’s not an accurate snapshot of the present, but a very hopeful look into the future, and we try to make it happen as much as possible in the present. But when things don’t line up, when there is that discrepancy, we realise at the same time that there is something seriously wrong with this world.
And we are still living in it.
I think that when we start seeing this, we have to face it, that wrongness. Now the real work of it begins, where we don’t just have Christmas waiting for us in the morning, when the lights aren’t ‘magically’ appearing thanks to the lovely persons taller than our 6-year-old selves, but now we are grownups and we have to bring this Christmas down to earth. Now we have bills to pay. Now we have family struggles that go beyond arguing over a new toy. Now we have suffered real loss and we miss those people, we miss what we thought our life was going to be, what we thought it should be. We have to be brave and strong and determined, and it’s hard. Because the longer we live the more we see, and then we find ourselves looking around us at Christmastime and while we are inspired and encouraged by how people try to reach out and alleviate tragedy and suffering, we also see a lot of tragedy and suffering. The winter is very dark.
This Bible study I’ve been doing has several recurring themes, but my favourite has been our need to focus on God. Whenever we are afraid, anxious, worried, when those errant thoughts come at us to try to discourage and dissuade and distract us, we are to pray because it focuses us on God. When we need peace, when we feel that discouragement and the whispers of doubt, when anxiety wraps around our heart and starts to squeeze, Paul instructs us to be thankful. Thankfulness reminds us of who our God is, what He is capable of, what He has done for us, faithfully, and it refocuses our attention, our thoughts, our hearts on Him. And just like that, we are reconnected with that infinite peace that passes understanding.
A few months ago, I would have dismissed this as Christian triteness (I say this as someone who has been a devout believer almost her entire life) because it sounds so…unrealistic. Now I’ve lived it, and from my own experience this is the most accurate description I’ve managed thus far.
The best part about how Paul writes about this kind of prayer is that he never tells us to ignore what’s going on around us. Thankfulness is never, ever the turning of a blind eye to the suffering and darkness that surrounds us in this world. Because it is very dark, and denying that doesn’t make it better. Christians are never told to look away.
Rather, we are told to be a light in the darkness. We are taught to abide in Christ. This is our starting point. We can look to the Ephesians 6:10-18 passage on the armour of God, where Paul tells us to first, first, we gird ourselves in Truth, and first we put on the breastplate of righteousness, and first we put on those shoes of peace. We get ourselves ready, we go to God and we get filled up. And then. Then we take up the shield of faith, and the rest of the armour that we haven’t discussed in Bible study yet :o)
So my theory right now (and I say ‘theory’ because I want to live it before I testify to it, I don’t want to get ahead of myself) is that by orienting ourselves to focus on Jesus Christ, on the Advent, on the Incarnation, on the hope that is our Lord and Saviour, on the Light that came to save the world from darkness, on the source of our peace, we are equipped to stand amidst this darkness and be that light, bear the Gospel, share that peace. Without this, I think the darkness tries to swallow us, to dampen our light. And that’s the enemy’s trick, isn’t it? To distract, dissuade, and discourage us, however he can, so we don’t do what we were created and called to do.
So really…it’s a kind of self love that’s needed first. We have to get ourselves close to God, and I don’t say that in a ‘You better make sure your relationship with God is good, or you’re going to be in trouble’ sort of way. I mean, there are things that only God can give us, and we need those things, without them life is miserable, to the point that even Christmas is miserable. That’s not how I want to spend my life, especially my Christmases.
I was so scared last year that I wasn’t going to feel the Christmas spirit. That I would lose my joy like I’d heard so many other people talk about experiencing themselves. I didn’t want that excitement to be something I’d grown out of. I didn’t want life to have stolen away something I loved so, so much. I was going through the motions, sometimes getting a little hint of Christmas spirit here and there, and then it would be gone again, fleeting. Until Linus Van Pelt came to the rescue. It’d been well over a decade since I’d seen that movie, but that was exactly what I needed. I was Charlie. I went through exactly what he went through. And Linus, darling, wonderful Linus reoriented him, and me. And that Christmas feeling was back.
We need reminders. We’re human, we forget, we get distracted, we get busy. The surrounding darkness, wherever you believe it comes from, keeps vying for our focus, trying to overwhelm whatever good we have and can be in this world. So we need reminders. That’s what Christmas is for, and Easter, the Eucharist, they’re all to remind us of the Truth, refocus us on God. This is where we must start, with God, with Christ. For me, it has to be more than just an acknowledgement that ‘we need to keep Christ in Christmas’ – that’s not enough for me. I need to read the Nativity. I need to set up my Nativity scene where I see it. I need to meditate on it. I need to start with carols, not just Christmas music, carols and really focus on the words. And most of all, I need to pray, because there is no way, no possible way, we can survive this darkness that pervades this world without God. And once I’ve done that, I can go in peace. I can share joy. I can happily bake cookies, rather than getting stressed at how it’s taking longer than I’d planned. I can get excited about picking out just the right gift, rather than worrying about…just all sorts of things. Once I remember my Joy, I can share it with others who need it. But I have to do the remembering first.
This my theory. I don’t say this to be preachy, I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with my perspective; I do sincerely hope that people can take snippets, though, and derive their own approach that fits what they believe and what they need this time of year, regardless of what holiday they want to love and celebrate.
My theory is that this year I can strive to be mindful of those feelings and I’m going to go to God. Not to try to be ‘cured’ or rid of them, but so I can keep my eyes on Him, so I can worship Him regardless of how I feel. So I can miss those I’m not able to be with, and be grateful that God has given me a soft heart, that I still feel compassion, that I still feel. So I can see that darkness and suffering and know that there is hope, that there is nothing so dark that God’s love cannot shine there, and so I can remember He has equipped me to do something about it. So I can walk where and how He wants me to walk. So I can release what I think Christmas should be, let go of the perfect image I have and see the beauty that is right here in Christmas 2016, see the joy and love and peace that I am living through right now. And it’s not perfect, but it’s still a beautiful gift. It isn’t supposed to be perfect, not yet, not this side of eternity. So it’s okay if it’s a messy Christmas. It’s okay if it isn’t our ideal. That doesn’t make it joyless, and it doesn’t make our hope any less real.
So it’s okay to feel whatever I feel. It’s okay to be sad and to miss people and to grieve. That doesn’t make it any less Christmassy, that doesn’t make me any less of a faithful Christian either. Jesus cried too. Sadness does not mean that Christmas is false or a failure. Nor do we have to experience sadness at the suffering of others in order to be allowed to enjoy the good things at Christmas, by the way. Because Christmas does not depend on perfect celebration, but on the perfect Saviour whose Advent we remember and celebrate this time of year. A Saviour that I hope, above all, I am able to know better by keeping my eyes on Him this year, as much as I can.
And to do that, I need to come to Him as myself, and that includes some melancholy days. He can handle it. He gives me peace. He is my hope. And He is my joy.
To test my theory, I am beginning with four things to properly orient myself, and three things to keep me oriented daily (and I post them here so I feel more accountable). Right now, I have this Christmas meditation that is doubling a blog post (yay for multitasking);, next I will be reading the Nativity story in Luke, after which I will be placing a Bible in each of my main rooms, opened to Luke 2, as my first Christmas decoration (I got this idea from the only ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ post I have seen that actually talked about how to do this apart from obnoxiously reposting such things on Facebook); and then I will put up my Nativity Scene (once I find it) before any other decorations. Then daily I want to start my day with prayer and devotions (which is going to be the hardest because I suck at getting up in the morning), I want to give someone something (time, cookies, a little present, a nice message, something) every day, and I want to keep researching, just a little each day, for ways to keep myself focused properly this year (so I would love suggestions if anyone has some, religious or otherwise, I know there are probably tons of ways people tap into the Christmas spirit).
And hopefully, come January, this won’t be just a theory anymore :o)