The holiday season is just about over. The presents are unwrapped. The relatives have left. The leftovers are almost gone. Some things went well. Some didn’t. There were moments of pleasure and joy and moments of disappointment and frustration. The roller coaster of activities and emotions is sliding to a stop. As you bite the head off the last gingerbread man, you sigh and wonder “Now what?” Coming down from the holidays can feel like a come-down. But it’s also a new beginning.

After the many festivals of light in mid-winter (Ramadan, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Bodhi Day, Christmas, Kwanzaa) comes the time of the dark — a quiet time for gathering ourselves for the daylight to come. Not so long ago, winter was a time for lying low, for repairing tools, doing hand work, spinning cloth, and spinning tales. Because the central fire provided the only warmth in colder climates, families gathered around it to entertain children, to catch up on tasks that had been put off or neglected, and to plan for the next season.

In such close quarters, people had to learn get along, to work together and, at times, to respect each other’s periodic need for solitude and silence even when huddled together. When spring came, people were rested and ready for the next spurt of activity. As soon as the sap started to run, people and creatures also felt the call to reemerge from their caves (whether literal or figurative) and to get busy.

In a time of central heating, on demand TV, individual computers, and mass produced goods, we mostly ignore the natural rhythm to things. Instead of convening around the fire, we go off to our own rooms. Instead of sharing our time and telling stories to children, we send them off to play and go our own busy ways. Instead of taking a break from our usual work to do needed reflection and to plan, we push on. We have lost an important forum for learning patience for ourselves and tolerance for others. We seem to have forgotten that January and February are for quiet even though something in our spirits still longs for a time of hibernation.

Unfortunately, the tendency in American culture is to make a natural down time into a problem. We give it the clinical name of “depression” or the not-so-clinical name of “the blues.” We tell ourselves to snap out of it. We tell others who are pulled more into themselves that they should buck up, get with the program, produce. We may look to medicine to override our inclination to curl up with a book or just curl up. Where did we get the idea that once the holidays are over we’re supposed to flip a switch and get back to business as usual? Where did we get the idea that any deviation from full participation and enjoyment of every single minute, regardless of the season, means that something is wrong?

What Is and Isn’t Depression?

There’s a difference between a genuine diagnosis of depression and the natural wintertime pull to rest and regroup. A diagnosis of a clinical depression requires that five or more of the following symptoms have been present during the same two-week period and present a change from one’s usual level of functioning. Please note the “and.” Both must be going on. At least one of your symptoms must be a depressed mood or loss of ability to take pleasure in things you usually like. Further, the symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Symptoms of depression (according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – IV-R) include:

  1. Depressed mood most of the day nearly every day.
  2. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
  3. Significant change in appetite nearly every day or a change of more than 5 percent of your body weight within a month.
  4. Sleeping too much or too little nearly every day.
  5. Being observably restless or agitated, or being observably slowed down.
  6. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
  7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
  8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate or indecisiveness nearly every day.
  9. Recurrent thought of death, suicidal ideation, or an attempt, or a plan to commit suicide.

If you truly meet five or more of these criteria, including either No. 1 or No. 2, you should get yourself to a mental health provider for a professional evaluation. Real depression is miserable. It makes it difficult to function at work or in school, to be good to others, and to care about yourself. Fortunately, with a combination of talk therapy and some medication, it can be managed and you can feel better. Really. Most people do respond to treatment. (See the Psych Central’s depression resources for a more complete discussion of clinical depression.)