Now that Black Friday 2015 is mercifully behind us, it seems useful to pause and consider the weeks ahead leading up to Christmas Day. In my psychotherapy practice, I hear from clients about the pressure they feel to be positive and cheerful during the holiday season – whether that is authentically how they feel or not. This can be very difficult for people who have experienced losses (including the loss of loved ones with whom they used to happily celebrate the holidays), and for those who feel isolated in their lives. Furthermore, the pressure to “be happy” is often internalized, and this increases the distress that individuals experience during this time of year due to their own self-criticism about how they feel. The good news, for these people, and for all of us, is that Christmas doesn’t have to be about external circumstances, or about decorations, parties, or even the design of your coffee cup – Christmas can be an inside job.
Let me be clear – it’s perfectly okay to feel however you are feeling during this holiday season. In fact, some powerful examples of personal transformation related to Christmas, are centered on characters who start out being very clearly and strongly committed to their disdain for the holiday. The path that Ebenezer Scrooge takes, and that ultimately releases him from his despair, is one of deeply feeling his real emotions – it has nothing to do with him “trying” to be merry. Rather, it allows him to confront deep pain about the losses he has suffered, the mistakes he has made, and the people he has harmed. In Dr. Seuss’s “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” the Grinch’s transformation is literally an inside job, wherein his heart grows 3 sizes on Christmas morning – this occurs because he pauses to listen to (and revel in) the sadness and wailing of the Who’s – again, being true to his raw emotions – and instead hears them singing, releasing him from the idea that Christmas is an external and consumeristic experience. Likewise, George Bailey, the main character from the film “It’s A Wonderful Life”, only discovers his true joy, after allowing himself to sink to the depths of despair – even contemplating taking his own life. Even Charlie Brown admitted to feeling depressed and lonely at Christmas time, before having an experience of connectedness due to his having introduced an authentic Christmas tree into his friends’ commercialized holiday celebration. None of these transformations would have been possible, if these characters had simply forced themselves to put on a happy face and suffer through phony interactions, and perfunctory dinners on Christmas day. The Grinch may have carved the “Roast Beast” but it wouldn’t have tasted nearly as good – being seasoned with a hefty dose of resentment as it would have been.
It is unfortunate that these beloved stories have not made more of an impact on our society’s relentless push for people to be “in the holiday spirit.” There seems to be an unexpressed fear, that someone being unhappy during the holidays may bring the rest of us down – and we resist this because we are also feeling the same pressure to be happy. The energy put into resisting our actual feelings almost always results in the feelings taking more of a hold on us. Whereas acknowledging feelings tends to loosen their grip on our psyche. Pope Francis recently gave a sermon about Christmas, saying “It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace.” Unfortunately, the charade will continue unchanged as retailers vie for the dollars of consumers swept up in the “Christmas Spirit.” Even if taking an inside approach to Christmas this year, doesn’t result in a significant transformation, or positive shift in mood, it will at least provide an opportunity to work on self acceptance, and to resist the pressure to leave oneself behind in the shuffle of busy-ness, and often forced participation.
From a Christian perspective, the idea of Christmas being an inside job is truly relevant. In the season of Advent (the weeks leading up to Christmas Day) on the Christian calendar, we are invited to prepare for the arrival of the savior – that is, God dwelling among us. While this preparation calls for a process of emptying and opening ourselves – instead this time often fosters in us a great deal of anxiety, leading to a desire to control as much as possible – buying the right gifts, going to the right parties, getting the best parking place, beating out that other person in grabbing the last item on the shelf. These things all push us further away from experiencing God, rather than drawing us closer to God. One response to this dynamic is The Advent Conspiracy. It is a movement dedicated to “resisting the cultural Christmas narrative of consumption by choosing a revolutionary Christmas through Worshipping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.”
The weeks leading up to the first Christmas in the biblical depictions, were surely a time of stress for Mary and Joseph – traveling a far distance and then being marginalized and relegated to the stable, upon their arrival, prior to the birth of Jesus. This must have been a very difficult experience, and one that required them to call on all of their strengths, and to experience a wide range of emotions, in their commitment to one another and to completing the tasks set before them. It was surely not a time of focusing on external trappings, and frivolous or fleeting experiences. Why then, should our preparation be any less welcoming to feelings and experiences of all kinds. If you are joyful, be accepting of that joy – if you are melancholy, be accepting of that as well.
As Christians, we are taught that God chose to take on human form and to live life as a human being, experiencing the full range of human emotion. In the stories we hear about Jesus, he is consistently authentic, forthright, and honest about his experience and in his interactions with others. Let us be accepting of one another’s authentic experience, and let go of the idea that this time of year is a time that we should feel any particular way. Let us trust that however we ourselves, or anyone else is feeling, it is a reflection of our human experience, and it is welcome at the table.
Daniel Doyle is a licensed M.F.T. specializing in EMDR therapy