When I was a child, I loved Christmas. I loved the gifts, of course, but it was also a time for togetherness. Along with Thanksgiving, it was one of the two times a year that my family was obliged to act like a loving, healthy group.
We would visit other relatives, too. I had cousins in Cleveland, about a four hour drive from us. Sometimes we would fly down to Florida, where my mother’s parents lived. And since my father was a minister, it was a virtual guarantee that we’d have a few church-related parties to go to, and that our house would be filled with gifts of chocolate and baked goods.
I loved the rituals of the weekly Yule candles and the daily advent calendar. No cheap paper calendars for us (if such even existed back then): Ours was wooden, with tiny doors on tiny peg hinges.
My family had been dysfunctional for as long as I could remember. My mother’s severe depression and my father’s anger issues made for a toxic environment. A few years ago, a relative shared a photo of my brother and me sitting on some stairs; I’m about five years old, and laughing heartily. I cannot believe it’s me. Even though my older brother insists it is, I don’t remember laughing much as a child.
But for the month and a half around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and especially on those bookend holidays, the façade of a happy family my father had created for his parishioners the rest of the year bled over into my own home life.
As I entered my teen years, the filigree mirage collapsed and my parents divorced. Christmas went from a time of warmth and tradition to a reminder of the cruelty of life.
For a long time after that, I resented Christmas. It certainly didn’t help that I struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
There’s a reason, after all, that many cultures observe some sort of celebration around the Winter Solstice. Humans generally like sunshine, as a species, and during the winter months we’re deprived of more of it. In cultures that are dependent on agricultural cycles to survive, the solstice marks a vague midpoint of reliance on food stores.
But at the same time, the resentment was magnified by the collapse of the family I’d been raised in. As much as I’d hated my home life for years prior to the divorce, the holiday season was a respite from that. Things became reversed: Most of the time, I was happier that I could put the dysfunction of my family behind me, but Christmas became a reminder of what I’d lost.
I wasn’t alone in feeling depressed around Christmas. While the claim that suicide rates peak around Christmas is a myth, depression is common.
Some reasons include SAD, loneliness due to a lack of a social support network, grieving or otherwise missing loved ones (as in my case), and frustration at the commercialization of a holiday that was meant to be about love, hope, and rebirth.
For many people in my personal circle, 2017 has been a particularly difficult time to maintain hope. We see the President as a self-centered person who uses bigotry and classism as a wedge, we’re reeling from a new tax law that’s a gift to the richest of the rich, we’re fretting over continued damage to our environment…. Even the minor victory of general acknowledgement, finally, of sexual harassment and assault comes with dismay as men like Matt Damon show their cluelessness at how deep the problem is.
It’s sadly fitting that this year has been punctuated by a Star Wars movie that ends on a down beat: Culturally, those of us on the left are trying to find our own hope and our own way through the darkness.
All the same, I speak in the past tense about my own Christmas blues for a reason. While I still struggle with my moods during this time of year, the depression and resentment aren’t anywhere as deep now as they were a decade or two ago.
Nationally, this year has indeed been a terrible one. Personally, it hasn’t been that bad. My debts are still tremendous, but this is the first year in a long time that I’ve written something consistently for the entire year. My job could be better, but it’s stable. My wife, who started the year with career uncertainty, likewise finishes the year with a stable job. My young son is healthy, wonderfully intelligent, and insightful, and has a great sense of humor.
I have plenty of reason to see hope in my personal life. More importantly, I can see that, instead of all the negative things I could be dwelling on instead.
If you’re struggling with Holiday sadness and isolation, I’m not going to tell you that it will get better. I don’t know if it will. I will tell you, though, that it got better for me. I’m not out of the dark labyrinth just yet, and I’m sure there will be future storms for me to weather. But it’s much better than it used to be.
My son doesn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore; he announced this at Easter, when he told us we had to keep pretending about the Easter Bunny and Santa. He said it was because he wanted to get getting the swag, but I think there’s a deeper driver here, too.
When he went to sit on Santa’s lap this year, he didn’t tell Santa he didn’t believe. He didn’t give Santa a long list of gifts, either. He said he wanted a cell phone, some Dimensions packs, and some Infinity toys (if they still made them). Santa said he’d need our permission for the cell phone, and that he’d look in the back of his warehouse for the Infinity toys. My son seemed satisfied with this.
Sure, he wants presents from Santa and chocolate from the Easter Bunny, but I think he even more wants the comfort of ritual. It’s fun, even if it’s not true.
Photo credit: Getty Images