It doesn’t pair well with visions of sugar plums, candy canes and stockings.
But the holidays can be a time of sadness, of loss, of depression for many people.
The traditions and highly recognizable signs of the season, those things we find so beloved, can also be the very things that trigger the darker emotions inside us.
My dad passed away three years ago, right in the heart of Christmas. Christmas carols that I had long treasured now played in mocking Muzak as we sat in the ICU waiting room. Frosty the Snowman window clings and garish tinsel seemed to sarcastically leer at me from the observation windows to my dad’s room. I knew that these signs of the season had been placed there as an attempt to cheer up one of the most desperate places, but just as other events of those days seared themselves into my memory, so too did previously innocuous festive decor, imprinted dangerously with a traumatic and wrenching time. And this year we are facing our first Christmas without my father-in-law, who passed away this past spring.
The iconic sights and sounds of the holiday season traffic so heavily in our memories. And those very same familiar wreaths and trees and candy canes can be a discordant herald to just how different things now are, now that things have changed, now that what was has passed, now that everything is seemingly different.
But, embraced well, the holidays can offer healing. There can be a soul salve in the season, a medicinal in the merry. Consider these four strategies when facing the holidays after major change or loss.
1. Hang on to Beloved Traditions
There are certain dishes we make, certain songs we sing, certain ways we do things that have their roots in previous iterations and traditions in life. We cherish those things well, reminding ourselves and our kids where these customs came from in my and Michael’s families of origin. By continuing to celebrate these traditions, it holds the memories of loved ones, previous homes, early seasons close and dear.
2. But Change Things Up
For years and years, we always traveled to Oklahoma either right before Christmas or immediately afterward, hitting north of the Red River when the holiday was in full swing. After my dad passed, we chose to circle up at Thanksgiving. We still had our gift exchange and sang a couple of carols. But we noshed on lasagna instead of some blow-out of a feast and we kept things simple and sweet. This year, we are retooling again, reshaping what the season will look like for us, with Michael’s mom coming down our way for a change.
Why change things up? Because it is an intentional antidote to trying to hang on to something that has now transitioned. We set ourselves up for muting the joy of the season when we compare it to what was, when we pine for what can’t be. A sentimental nostalgia is a beautiful sapor to the sugar that brings out the full flavor of the sweetness of the season. But an overpowering essence of heartache borne of remorse and melancholy mutes what could be a curative combination.
3. Create a New Tradition to Honor What Was
We’ve been big Christmas ornaments collectors for a long time, delighting each year in finding little treasures that have meaning for an experience in the year. Now, we also add an ornament that reminds us of the memories of loved ones and things that remind of us stories with them. It’s a sweet way to keep those loved ones present with us in the season without veering into the maudlin.
4. And Create a New Tradition to Honor What ‘Now’ Is
We’re still feeling our way on this one as well, but I think changing our usual travel, seeking new holiday experiences with the kids, adding some new books to our Christmas reading, exploring a new light display or show, have all helped. I have a couple of other ideas, but perhaps the greatest thing we can do to honor the new now is to fully embrace the season. My dad and my father-in-law loved Christmas, loved when we all got together, loved the laughter and a house full of people. To muffle the full expression of the season, to damper the glee and limit the festivities and linger in the past would in no way honor what they taught us. To enjoy the now, to fully soak in it, is perhaps one of the greatest ‘traditions’ we can maintain through the changes, challenges and transitions in life.
Heading into the holidays this year has definitely had its moments of unexpected tears and fresh washes of loss. But this has always been my favorite time of year and I won’t relinquish it to gloom. I won’t allow the understandable emotion of missing my dad and my father-in-law to be morphed into an overall theme for Christmas.
Because there is joy. Joy in the treasured memories of Christmases past. Joy that we will be reunited again one day.
Joy in the incredible saving message of the Christ Child.