We can look at several relationships and understand pretty quickly why holidays can be so difficult to survive.
My relationship to myself.
End-of-year holidays beg me to evaluate how I did this year—do I have a good job? Am I in a significant relationship? Am I pregnant yet? Did I get the promotion? Did I do the writing or painting or other creative dream I held for this year? Did I lose weight or find a better hairstyle? Is my house or apartment clean and organized for once? Did I break that bad habit and start a better one? I have a secret and very long list for self-improvement, and it comes up for review every year around holiday time. This is especially true if I plan to send out any kind of Christmas update about me and my family. And because hardly anyone achieves what she had planned to achieve in a given year, such an evaluation leaves a person feeling like a failure, discouraged, angry, even hopeless. Sometimes all of these emotions converge about the time I get out of my car and walk up the front steps to this year’s holiday gathering.
My relationship to the past.
When I go back to the town my mother lives in and where I grew up, the moment I cross a certain highway, the memories begin to well up. I cannot be in a certain geographic place without the memories being there too. This can be lovely and comforting, but of course the dark memories come back around too. Within a few hours I can feel like the awkward teenager who struggled so much to belong and to find love. I can feel ugly and rejected even though my life now is years away from the person I was then. I can in fact be doing well and looking all right and still be stuck to the emotions surrounding those bad memories. All I can do is hone my awareness for when my emotions begin to slide down that deep ravine of past hurt and regret. When the memories begin their damage, I can counter them with prayers of thanksgiving for what is happening now in my life. I can focus on other people I’ll be seeing and ask myself how I can be an encouraging presence for them—because every other person is doing that silent battle with the past too.
My relationship to my parents.
It takes work and intent to make a distinct separation between me and my parents. To them I will always be their little girl and they will always remember my hurts and weaknesses. I hope they remember my successes as well, but I can’t control the way they interpret and retell the past. Some of the worst hurts suffered by adults are the faulty stories their parents continue to tell, the versions of their children they insist on clinging to. Whenever I visit my mother (my father died years ago), I am vulnerable, still, to her interpretation of who I was back then and who I am now. She will always see me in a certain way and be unable to see me in other ways. Fortunately for me, my mother has a kind and loving version of history applied to me, and she’s proud of who I have become and what I do. But this is not the case for everyone. For some people, every visit to a parent reopens vicious wounds that have never quite healed.
My relationship to my peers.
I grew up in a farming community where it was the norm to marry right out of high school and start having babies. Of course, quite a few people did not follow that script, but the script held power over all of us. And still, as adults who are years away from high school and college, we tend to be sensitive to where we stand in relation to our peers. Did I marry, and if so, did I marry “well”? Did I have children, or did that not happen for me? Do I have a job I enjoy and I’m proud to talk about when I run into someone who has known me since school days?
In some families, sibling rivalry can take much of the pleasure out of holiday gatherings. We are too busy comparing our jobs, our cars and homes, the accomplishments of our children, and on and on, to enjoy one another simply for being here. It doesn’t help if a sibling, parent, or other family member is compelled to mention someone else my age who has achieved some part of life I have not—such as marriage or pregnancy.
My relationship to my children, or lack of children.
Our children are not our children. They come from us, or in some situations are adopted and nurtured by us—but they are their own persons. It’s not their job to perform so as to make us look wonderful in front of friends and family. And if they feel that kind of pressure they will likely do just the opposite: act out in front of all the aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. Anything a child or teenager is sensitive about will become a more crucial issue when you add people and special meals and events. If anything, holiday celebrations are perfect opportunities to leave our kids alone and allow them whatever high or low profile they seek.
Holidays can be really painful for the person who has always wanted children but does not have them. Holiday commercials, events (religious or non-religious), movies, and songs stress family happiness—which is ironic, because most families are broken and in need and not terribly happy much of the time. It can be an excruciatingly lonely experience to be in church or at the long family table beside everyone else and their babies and children. Unfortunately, no one else can really tend this deep hurt of mine. Depending on how distraught I am—for instance, if I recently had a miscarriage—attending a big family gathering may not be the best thing for me. I’m a firm believer in alternative holiday plans, such as time away in some other, new place with a friend or two or just my spouse and me, if the family scene will be just too much to manage emotionally.
My relationship to the church.
In just about every family gathering will be people who have no love for religion or who may even have a violent reaction to it. Families of mixed religions—such as Catholic husband and Jewish wife—will need to navigate complex schedules so that all can honor their faith. We need to be especially sensitive toward people who are depressed and anxious because it’s holiday time and their fears and unhappiness are amplified; talking cheerily of God’s love as if it magically fixes everything can make matters worse. In some families, religious traditions are front and center, but in other situations, I may need to reserve my faith practices for more private time. Perhaps I was brought up in a faith tradition but have landed somewhere else along the religious spectrum. I can’t expect others to provide what I need. Likewise, I cannot expect anyone and everyone to tag along to the Christmas Eve Mass with me.
These insights are certainly influenced by my age and the region in which I grew up. Feel free to add some wisdom from your particular situation.
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