It seems every blog, newspaper, magazine and morning TV time waster is very concerned about the holiday blues, the magical time of year when people get depressed when surrounded by lights, bells, Christmas carols, family, friends, and food.
Christmas is less a religious holiday than a cultural holiday in the states. Although we’re a country founded on freedom of religion, our government offices close for this holiday. We hear Christmas carols, but not Seder songs or the call to prayer during Ramadan. I know many folks, like myself, who are not practicing (or believing) Christians who celebrate Christmas regardless. And much of our celebration has a non-religious focus; Santa Claus, presents, reindeer? Not mentioned in any Christian texts I’m familiar with.
Depression is a loaded word, one frequently misunderstood. Feeling “depressed” and suffering from clinical depression are basically third cousins – they talk sometimes, but don’t remember each other’s middle names. When folks talk about the holiday blues, they are likely NOT talking about clinical depression, but rather dysthymia, feeling slightly down, slightly less energy, but still able to function.
Like most mental health concerns, feelings of sadness and depression are connected with expectation disparity – we expect things to be one way, but reality doesn’t conform. The holidays are a unique time because most of our expectations are of family love and unity, warmth, big meals, lots of gifts under the tree. Our expectations are very high, and it’s very hard for real life to live up to the hype.
In the past few decades especially, we have also built up the importance of gifts, particularly expensive and extravagant gifts.
I work with and am friends with a lot of low income people, who get really financially irresponsible to buy a bunch of presents they can’t afford, because their children expect it (or they think their kids will be super pissed at getting 5 presents rather than 10). No doubt getting into debt can contribute to depression – worrying about money saps brainpower, actually lowering IQ points! Rather than teaching kids about the reality of not being able to afford everything, we mess up long-term for short-term gratification….but it’s understandable! If presents mean love, who wouldn’t buy presents?!
You’re expected to be with family; not everyone has family, family they enjoy, or the means to visit their families. It can be super lonely!
Some folks are working to make ends meet; when you’re in a low-income, low-wage job, you’re likely not getting paid holidays off, or want to work to make time and a half, sacrificing your family time in the process.
If there’s no money for food, expecting to have a big meal can be impossible, and make you feel like a failure.
And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you can feel like a total outsider.
If you’re going to lots of parties, you could be drinking a lot, and getting the depressed mood that happens when your buzz turns into a hangover.
My theory is, we get the holiday blues for all these reasons, but mostly because we’ve become focused on the physical rather than emotional aspects of these celebrations. Like in life, the holidays can start feeling like a rat race, a competition to see who gets the most stuff, who did the biggest meal, how many uncles you make mad at the table. Our expectations are for perfection – life is never, ever going to be perfect.
Solve the holiday blues by taking a deep breath, slowing down, and remembering your expectations for yourself are likely higher than anyone else’s. Change what you want to make important this holiday season – is it spending a day with your kids? Is it being with friends instead of your family? Is it being outside in the snow? Is it walking down the street and seeing lights? Is it eating ham until you pass out? Is it telling one important person you care about them?
When we age, when we die, we won’t remember how many presents we got. We’ll remember the relationships we’ve built in our lives and how people made us feel – we’ll remember the impact we ourselves made.
This year, make your holidays happy, the best way you can, for you.