Sunday, December 15, 2013

How to Avoid a Depressing Christmas

By Alan Caruba

My memories of Christmas as a child include a run down the stairs to find stockings hanging from the fireplace and boxes of gifts. After the excitement of opening them, there was a family dinner for myself, an older brother, and my parents. Since my Mother was a teacher of haute cuisine, even the traditional turkey and other dishes were a special treat, but the fact is that the family ate like royalty for all the years we were together. An internationally honored authority on wine, it was a daily part of our lives.
Since Mother had taught many people how to cook and dine as a gourmet, her students sent cards and we would festoon the living room by pinning them to ribbons as decoration for the holiday. I knew early on that she was an extraordinary woman and much loved by her students and others with whom she came in contact. She wrote two cookbooks. My Father was her greatest fan and rarely left the dinner table without pausing to give her a hug and a kiss.

Christmas was a day to enjoy and we did. As I grew older the story of Santa Claus was replaced with purchasing gifts for the family. As I grew even older, first my Father passed away and then my Mother. Single by choice, my family became an older brother in a distant state, a nephew and a niece, both living distantly. So Christmas became a very quiet, solitary day.

All this might sound a bit depressing, but it is not my life that I regard in that fashion. Rather it is the incessant commercialism of Christmas combined with the media-driven expectations about the holiday that include a growing number of films, both classic and more recent, that fill the television airwaves night after night. You must be merry because it’s Christmas is the message and, if you’re not, there must be something wrong with you.

Between the endless commercials found in both the print and broadcast media, it is hard, if not impossible, to escape the constant demands to spend on everything from a new car to various kinds of gifts. The pressure builds the closer one gets to Christmas and, for many, it is daunting.

So, the dirty secret about Christmas is that it is often accompanied by feelings of depression, mild or intense, and too many people think there is, as mentioned, something wrong with themselves. There isn’t. It’s normal and there are ways to cope and overcome it.

Those happy childhood memories are not shared by everyone. Some grew up in dysfunctional families and recall the stress of the holiday. As an adult you have permission to put those memories aside and, if you have your own family, to create happier ones for children and loved ones. It can be as simple as creating your own family traditions such as a trip to church or volunteering to help others less fortunate.

For those with aging parents, Christmas is a reminder of the problems that might accompany this and, yes, this too can be depressing if you dwell on it. Aging, however, is just a part of life and we all must make our peace with it.

Winter is associated with Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) because of the early onset of darkness or just the too often overcast weather. Though cold, a short walk during the daylight hours, perhaps at lunchtime, is a useful way to avoid this or just by sitting by a window where the sun comes in. Exercise is a year-long way to ward off or reduce depression as it increases the heart rate and releases endorphins in the brain. You can exercise anywhere so a trip to an expensive gym is not necessary.

A frequently unspoken aspect of Christmas is the expectation to join family gatherings or events associated with the holiday. You may not wish to do this and, if not, you should find a good excuse to avoid them. Being surrounded by relatives of whom you’re not particularly fond is hardly a definition of merriment.

There are millions unemployed in the nation and, for them, Christmas just adds to their debts. Putting a limit on one’s spending is the sensible thing to do whether one is employed or not. Don’t apologize. A lousy economy is not your fault. And, beyond the economy, there are world events over which you have no control. On Christmas, you can and should ignore them.

If you are suffering from an on-going depression that requires therapy or medical intervention, taking action should be a priority, but for most Christmas is a trigger for general, often unfocused feelings, heightened by the recognition that time is moving along relentlessly. The New Year is a good time to find some focus and then to take action to address one’s problems.  Give yourself permission to do some interesting, fun things. You can and should do it.

If any of this resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Indeed, these are feelings shared by millions, by family members, by friends, and by coworkers.

So, yes, have a Merry Christmas and make it one designed to be what you want it to be, not what endless messages of holiday cheer make you feel you have to be or do.

© Alan Caruba, 2013


Harry Dale Huffman said...

A good, timely post. (I have lately been running, for half an hour every day, so at 65 I can confirm the benefits of exercise you mentioned--and that it can lower blood pressure rather dramatically.)

The key of course--to everything--is a personal realization that this life is not all that there is, that in fact, "This too shall pass." And, that this life was planned beforehand, to provide needed soul learning and growth (and reassurances of great, eternal joy, as present, for example, in the annually resurgent Christmas spirit).

Anyone who has once faced the fear of death head-on and defeated it, has done it once and for all, and can never after be so benighted as to think the dark can long withstand the light. (It can happen at any age, one can even be born so; I remember doing it when I was 9 years old, lying alone in my bed.) And that does not require facing physical death, only accepting the logical implications of one's (everyone's) ability to focus upon the good in one's life even in the midst of the bad--it means physical circumstances do not rule one's life, that the mind is fundamentally free of them, and that means there is a greater life beyond the physical. An eternal life, of overarching meaning, that encompasses all of the connections, the coherence and harmony, man has discovered, in himself, the world, and the universe. We are all just learning here, according to a higher--and an eternally loving--plan. All we really have to do is stay open to learning more about how things are all connected here, because the larger picture (even in the smallest, or darkest, moment) is essentially and inevitably--finally--a joyous one.

This has been known by the truly wise throughout history. Santa Claus is just the "All-Father", ancient of days, desiring above all to give to man one special gift--assurance of his eternal love.

Ronald Barbour said...

What do you mean,Pilgrim, SAD at Christmas time?

So what if I'm dressed completely in black, living all alone in a creepy castle, looking with an intense stare at the skull on my desk, while drinking Mad Dog wine from a glass in my left hand with a sharp knife in my right hand, saying over and over:

"To be, or not to be, that is the question..."

But seriously, PRINCE HAMLET was a great Dane, although a man who simply could not make up his mind, and thus by default did not commit suicide.

"When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;"