Survival Guide if the Holidays are Hard

Some people LOVE the holidays. All the bright lights, cheerful music, sugar-plum sweet references to the holidays being all about family.

For many other people, the holidays are very painful. All the bright lights, cheerful music, sickly sweet references to the holidays being all about family.

The candy-coated social mores about what the holidays are, or what they should mean, can all just be a bit much at the best of times.

But the holidays can be incredibly difficult. For those who have lost someone, have a fraught relationship with the idea of family, or who aren’t surrounded by lots (or any) loved ones.

The jingling, shimmering “festive season!” just rubs salt into these wounds. It holds normative ideas of this time of year as the shining standard that is in such glaring contrast to the lived experience of those in pain. Maybe some of you relate.

While I’m certainly not anti-holiday (you should see how packed my freezer currently is with eight batches of cookies!), I do remember what it’s like to have a tough time during holidays. To dread them.

Today we’ll look at three things.

  • First, some of the underlying assumptions that can make the holidays feel painful.
  • Second, we’ll look at ways to support yourself during the holidays if they’re tough for you.
  • Third, we’ll explore some ideas on reclaiming the holidays for yourself – both simple and deep-dive options included!

1. Assumptions

There are a lot of assumptions made about the holidays that are really not helpful. Although many of us are likely in tune with what these are, sometimes it’s helpful to really draw out the core issues. Let’s look at a couple key examples.

Assumption 1: Going “home” for the holidays/spending time with family

One of the questions that used to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck was, “Are you going home for the holidays?”

“Home” to the people who usually ask this question, means going back to their family of origin.

This deals with three different issues.

  • First, it assumes someone has a family.
  • Let’s remember that many people do not have family. And it doesn’t matter why they don’t. Whether due to factors out of or in their control, many people do not have others to call family.
  • Second, it assumes someone wants to go and spend time with their family. Sure, lots of people see family during any holiday season. And many of them enjoy that time. But let’s not ignore that lots of people can’t stand their families. Many people are just trying to survive seeing their families.
  • Third, it suggests that someone should be spending time with their family of origin during the holidays.
  • Whether or not someone has family, maybe they do not want to spend time with them. Regardless of what their reasons are for that is not anyone else’s place to judge. Or assume.

Some people may still be struggling to accept why anyone would simply not want to spend time with family if they have them. Here are some thoughts.

They’re adults who are responsible to live with their own decisions. They have made a decision that they would rather spend their time, energy, resources and emotions to do something else during a season that is commercially and normatively overblown.

Also, it doesn’t matter how well you know someone or how confident, happy and resourced you think they are. You never know what they’ve been through.

Assumption 2: What the holidays are “all about”

Of all the holiday-themed movies you’ve watched, how many haven’t made some platitude about what the holidays are “all about”?

Well, it really depends on which holiday.

  • For example, many Christians get up in arms this time of year, saying that Christmas is about Jesus. Well, it’s true that Christmas is about Jesus. But this time of year is not the purview of Christmas alone. And I say this as someone who celebrates Christmas.
  • There’s Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracles surrounding the reclamation and rededication of Jewish people’s Holy Temple in the 2nd century BCE.
  • For others still, there’s Yule which celebrates the winter solstice, recognizing the darkness bringing about life under the surface, and giving birth to the light. I also celebrate Yule.
  • Let’s not forget Kwanzaa, a holiday period that celebrates and recognizes ancient and living cultural traditions of African peoples around the world.
  • And of course, as we know from a Seinfeld episode, there’s “festivus for the rest of us” (which was an actual family celebration one of the writers grew up with).

There are many traditions and rituals that are practiced for each of these, and they can look very different from person to person.

Traditions may include spending time with family as an activity, but you notice that none of the holidays is actually about family. That’s what the Family Day holiday is for. Let’s release the assumption that holidays automatically equal time spent with family. This isn’t Leave It to Beaver, and that’s okay.

2. How to get through small talk during/about the holidays

Regardless of what you do or don’t celebrate this time of year, it’s unlikely you’ll avoid encountering questions, conversations and statements based on the assumptions we covered above.

If you’re stuck on ideas for how to talk to people about the holidays, here’s what I suggest.

If you’re struggling with the holidays

Step 1: Have a plan for what you’ll say.

If the holidays are painful for you, having a canned response you can give to people helps take the sting out of their questions. It’s not a surprise if people ask at this time of year, so have a plan for a way to respond.

For example, “I’m really hoping to take it easy this year and totally relax. Things have been hectic and I’m so looking forward to having time for some serious R&R.”

Step 2: Have a plan for how you’ll move the conversation to a different topic.

One option is to ask the other person a similar question (since people generally like to talk about themselves), but that might be begging more salt in the wound if you’re already struggling. Another option is to start asking people about whether they make New Year’s Resolutions or if they have time off planned in the winter.

Step 3: Separately, I encourage you to start undertaking some work to reclaim the holidays from the pain.

More on that later.

If you like the holidays

Step 1: Be conscious of how you ask people questions about the holidays, and be open to how people may respond.

Instead of assuming that everyone celebrates something, or that everyone has family/wants to see them, decide what you want from the conversation first. If you’re just  making small talk, you can keep things high level. If you’re interested in genuine interaction with someone, ask exploratory questions instead.

Example of small talk: “Are you taking any time off in December? Or maybe later in the winter?”

Example of exploratory questions: “Do you celebrate anything this time of year?” (if yes, “How do you celebrate?”)

Step 2: Be conscious of how you share about your way of celebrating the holidays.

You can speak to which holiday(s) you celebrate and what it means for you. This doesn’t mean to avoid talking about spending time with family, if that’s what you do.

Step 3: Remember it’s not about being politically correct. It’s just about respect for different ways and experiences.

You’re not responsible for someone else’s emotions. So while you can be sensitive toward someone whom you know is having a tough time, that doesn’t mean you should silence your own enjoyment of your holiday(s).

3. Reclaiming the holidays

Simple steps

Whether it’s fresh or old pain, if the holidays hurt, here are two simple steps I suggest if you want to do something simple:

Option 1: Do at least ONE thing that deeply honours YOU.

It could be anything. Make sure you do that one thing for yourself sometime this season.

Option 2: If you’re struggling with loss during this season, find a candle and light it for even a couple minutes each day this season.

Light it in honour of the one you’ve lost. Light it to signify that your heart can begin to see just a little warmth and light through the darkness.

Diving deep

If you want to take your reclamation or healing to the next level, here’s what I suggest:

If the pain is really fresh

Be gentle with yourself. You don’t have to solve anything right now. Take the steps you need to take care of your needs this month. If that means not going to outings, then stay at home (no guilt allowed!).

Have a cut-off time for leaving gatherings if you’re finding them exhausting. Schedule something really nice for yourself, like an evening to yourself, a soothing bath, a massage, a long walk (bundle up), a book or movie you really want to engross yourself in.

If it’s been awhile since the initial pain

You may have had zero control over the painful trauma that has left you wanting to hide under a rock in December. What you do have control over is how you approach this season, how you think about it, how you make it yours.

The season doesn’t have to happen to you. You’re an adult. You get to choose what and how you do and don’t celebrate. Here are some suggestions:

Option 1: If you already have holiday commitments

If you’ve already committed to lots of holiday plans, I suggest you do the thinking and writing steps in the Option 2 below as you go about your existing plans.

Going through with your existing plans will highlight what’s important for you, and you’ll be able to have a plan for how you pre-empt next year.

Option 2: Reclaim December

Think through and decide what it is that you want to celebrate (or not) in December.

  • Write out what that means to you.
  • Include the things you definitely want to do during the season.
  • Make note of the things you are not interested in doing this season.
  • If you’re making changes that will surprise some people in your life, have a clear idea of how you’ll respond if they ask (remembering that it is your choice).
  • Get out a calendar and make a plan for what you will do and when, and plan accordingly.

The first year you make changes will feel the most challenging if your decisions affect anyone else. High quality people in your life may be surprised but will ultimately be supportive if you have done this exercise thoughtfully and explain it to them rationally and compassionately.

Those who don’t eventually come around to supporting you or otherwise respecting your decisions may not be people you should be giving your energy to in the first place. Something to consider.

Option 3: Combination of existing commitments with new practices

This option is a good way to follow through on your existing commitments while playing around with new ways of honouring yourself.

You may need to intentionally schedule self-honouring holiday observances on different days than you would otherwise, in order to accommodate your existing commitments.

Concluding thoughts

Wherever you find yourself this month, I encourage you to actively find moments of stillness within yourself. Take a couple minutes when you’re standing in a lineup to take a deep breath and bring yourself into the present. It’ll help to remind you that you can get through this month with intention, regardless of what it holds for you.

And if you have some time, check out the meditation I created for Thanksgiving. That will really help to ground and align! 

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