As the calendar is now one page, people all over the world are celebrating a multitude of holidays, including Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, St. Lucia Day and the Winter Solstice. Each has merit and meaning for those who observe their personal spiritual tradition. Holidays are meant to unite, not divide. They are intended to bring people together in the spirit of love.
Instead, for many, they carry with them an added layer of stress, family conflict, financial hardship and debt, expectations of Hallmark card perfection, challenges to sobriety, reminders of loss and a call to maintain emotional balance in the face of it all.
When I see posts on social media that proclaim people’s right to say, “Merry Christmas” in a culture in which various winter holidays are celebrated, without knowing the other person’s religious practices, I wonder if they would be cool with hearing the greeting, “Happy Hanukkah,” “Blessed Solstice,” or “Habari Gani” (which means, “What’s the news?” for Kwanzaa). How about an all-encompassing, “Happy Holidays”?
Father Kevin O’Brien, dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, disputes the idea that there is a “war on Christmas,” as some have claimed. His belief is that Jesus would have been accepting of the rights of to practice their faith as they see fit.
The Empty Place at the Table
In my therapy practice, I have several clients whose loved one died in this past year. To prepare them for their first holiday without that person, we explored the roller coaster ride of emotions that were likely to hijack them. Initially will come the expression of sadness that their family member or friend will not be joining them in person even as they feel their presence. It may be followed by a sense of “it’s-not-fair” resentment. Piggybacking off that may be a feeling of bewilderment about how to honor tradition, when the pain may feel like too much to bear. The absence is like a raw, open wound through which stinging tears pour.
What some have come up with is a blend of old and new that feel like a healing balm. Music, food, and rituals that loved ones enjoyed would become an ongoing part of their celebration, however it played out. I recall the first few holidays following my husband’s death in 1998. Since his passing took place on December 21st of that year (Winter Solstice and after the last candle of Hanukkah) and his funeral was on Christmas Eve, the holidays were subdued. For the next six or seven years, my son and I spent Christmas with his family, and then with love and appreciation, I shared with them that it was time to create a new tradition and we spent holidays with other family and friends.
One dynamic I observed was that at the onset of the anniversary of the period from November 11th (the day he entered the hospital in a coma) to December 21st when life support was turned off, my body rode the roller coaster of physical and emotional symptoms I had experienced during those unpredictable days spent in the ICU. It reflected the theory that the body can’t distinguish between actual experiences and those remembered.
I was sleepless and anxiety-riddled as if anticipating either the message that a liver would become available for transplant or a wake-up call telling me that my husband had made his transition. The first never materialized and the second occurred when I was on high alert wakefulness as I held his hand and he left his body. That pattern dissipated over the years and then re-visited at year 10. These days, it is a fleeting thought.
Staying Sober at the Holidays
For those who are in recovery, holidays may seem like a landmine-laden landscape through which they need to traverse without being blown to smithereens. If they attend parties where alcohol is served, whether the guests are family, friends or co-workers, they may feel pressured to imbibe.
In a recent conversation, a newly sober person said that she dreaded attending a family function, since she knew that nearly everyone would be intoxicated. If she didn’t indulge, they would either attempt to persuade her to drink or ask why she wasn’t joining in the revelry as they were. She said she would feel embarrassed at the attention and being labeled as an alcoholic, which was tantamount to wearing a scarlet letter. We explored the idea that it was no one’s business whether she drank and if they asked her why she chose to sip seltzer or sparkling cider instead of her beverage of choice; wine, she need only tell them she prefers not to or that for health reasons, she is choosing to sit out her typical activity. She then asked why it should matter to anyone. My response was that drinking is a tribal activity and for some, a litmus test of whether someone is ‘one of them,’ or an outsider.
I suggested these strategies to help her through the party:
- Go with sober supports who will help bolster your resolve.
- “Bookend” by talking to someone beforehand and afterward. Let that person know you made it through unscathed.
- Have a nonalcoholic beverage in your hand throughout. Hold onto it to avoid confusing it with someone else’s alcoholic drink.
- If there’s music, dance!
- Hang out with those you know are sober as well.
- Spend time with children, helping to create happy holiday memories for them.
- Have an exit strategy if triggers prove hard to resist.
Other holiday dynamics:
- If there’s conflict among family members, remember you’re not obligated to take sides or take their words personally.
- If food is addictive for you, eat lightly and drink water before heading to parties, use a small plate, and avoid the buffet table and second helpings.
- There is no need to go into debt to gift-give. Your presence — not just presents — is valuable.
- Create a tradition in which “re-gifting” is honored. Make it something you have treasured and want to pass on to someone else. Share the story about its importance to you.
- You need not go all out to decorate and cook and then find yourself too exhausted to enjoy time with your guests.
- Invite each guest to bring a dish to share.
- If historically, you have been the one to do all the work to prepare, ask family members to do their part. This may be a stretch since their expectation may be that you adhere to tradition.
- Count your blessings not just your stressors.