Christmas plays on our heartstrings, summoning up a whole panoply of emotions—sometimes conflicting and even contradictory . This can create a lot of stress. Even among children (although in my youth we just thought it was pangs of a guilty conscience).
The know-it-all at your local bar and grill, who bears a striking resemblence to President Trump, is telling everyone that the suicide rate goes way up around Christmas. But, and no surprise here, he'd be wrong about that, too.
Suicides actually increase more in the spring when psychic themes of rebirth and regeneration give many already depressed souls even more cause to fear they're falling further behind in social conformity than they had thought.
The Christmas season may generate seizures of sadness and melancholy in many people but it also comes with numerous built-in mood-bolstering and behavioral support systems, from holiday parties, to play-off football and bowl games, to church services, to family and neighborhood get togethers and ubitquitous decorations.
These all conspire to keep people moving along in collective step, or at least feeling like they are.
Just try not to break up with your girl friend after the beginning of Advent and before Ephipany has passed.
Cynthia Cavanaugh, author and life coach, writes, "The days of December can cause us to fall into the vortex of losing our Christmas joy. We are by nature emotional human beings, and those emotions are more heightened around Christmas, or so it seems." She recently conducted an informal survey of her followers asking them to describe what makes them afraid about Christmas, or mad, sad or disgusted. A sampling of their responses:
People won't like what I made
People won't like what I give
I'm afraid of not being enough
Not making people happy
Not having enough
No time to take a break.
My mother was not a big fan of the holiday season. But I think she was mostly just exhausted and in need of sleep. (For what it's worth, you did a great job, Mom, year in and year out.) And yes, I did so tell her that to her face. And frequently. I certainly didn't want her to stop, for God's sake.
But it's more than just feeling overworked and bone-tired.
The holidays deliver a whole jumble of signals that send our emotions careening in several different directions simultaneously. Some of those jumbles can be difficult to deal with.
For starters, the season is heavy with nostalgia. Memories are triggered by all kinds of things: scents, sounds, images, traditions. Plain ordinary Christmas music, for example, overpowers our normal thought processes, summoning generic emotional responses that aren't even tied to personal memory banks. It manufactures feelings that are completely synthetic, or at least mainly derivative. And Christmas music is inescapable. Even unfamiliar Christmas music has been shown to light up our emotions.
Holiday traditions take us right back to our childhood. They create some very welcome and warm memories but also feelings of longing for our irretrievable past, making us think of loved ones and close friends who have left our lives, like parents and old girl friends.
Traditions can provoke disturbing thoughts and feelings as well. What if we don't like being reminded of our childhood? What if it wasn't that good? What if frictions, bad feelings and unsettled scores have now developed among family members?
When families gather at Christmas, they often fall back into orders of behavior and status that governed members as they were growing up. It's a little like going back for a high school reunion, with everybody telling you that you "haven't changed a bit."
This year's Christmas Song Selection
Charles Brown released Please Come Home for Christmas in 1960, and it was this website's Christmas Song Selection for 2011. The write-up then noted then that both Don Henley and Luther Vandross had done covers with nowhere near the virtuosity of Brown's soulful oeuvre. But the song is worth reprising this year with Aaron Nevville's release from 1993. Former convict, ex-heroin addict, stocky build, bulging muscles, fierce and menacing visage, and quavering tenor most often described as "angelic." Just the man to come up with a take on Please Come Home for Christmas that can stand proudly and sorrowfully with the original.
That which is familiar can be comforting or aggravating or both. A family gathering can stir up a cornucopia of feelings in the space of just twenty minutes, never mind over a multi-course holiday dinner with alcohol and tired kids.
Another tender personal spot the holidays can poke at annoyingly is finances. Most couples rank arguing about money as one of their most frequently-engaged-in pastimes. The holidays just crank up the intensity, for any number of obvious reasons.
Unless you're really rich, and sometimes even if you are, financial insecurity is for most of us a core part of our regular meditation on our personal failings. And nothing does a better job of reminding you that you don't really make enough money than Christmas. What's going to be sitting in your driveway this year festooned with a big red bow on the roof for all the neighbors to see?
I remember some Christmases when the best thing about the holiday was that that the banks were closed for the day. One more blessed day of float; over a weekend maybe even three.
Joy, sadness, love and longing. Fear, loathing and personal inadequacy. It's a lot to ask a person to deal with when he's handing out presents.
So how to contend with all this and save your Christmas?. Just go to Google. The internet is full of sympathetic understanding and useful advice from everyone from well-meaning life observers to certified psychologists to people trying to make a buck for the holidays writing magazine articles.
Most of their prescriptions involve simple steps you can take to completely change your life, and the foundational principal of all their solutions is basically that you need to become a better person. Also, most professionals cheerfully volunteer that professional counseling could probably help.
Psychology Today (December 2011) actually did publish a list of helpful if slightly simple-minded tips. Here are most of them.
Keep your expectations balanced. You won't get everything you want, things will go wrong, and you won't always feel like Bing Crosby singing White Christmas. Everything doesn't have to be perfect and don't worry about things that are out of your control.
Don't try to do too much. Fatigue, over-scheduling, and taking on too many tasks can dampen your spirits.
Don't isolate. If you're feeling left out, then get out of the house and find some way to join in.
Don't overspend. Create a reasonable budget and stick to it.
It's appropriate to mourn. If you can't be with loved ones, make plans to celebrate when you can all be together.
With winter weather and shorter days, try to expose yourself to adequate sunlight. It helps lessen a type of depression called SAD (seasonal affectiveness disorder).
Try to watch your diet, which is hard during the holidays, and remember to exercise. Take a walk after Christmas dinner.
When all the hustle and bustle stops, getting get back to your daily grind can be a drag. Plan a rest day toward the end of the season.
Two more tips you might consider. Don't trash your family and friends in their presence. People who look for fights generally find them.
Don't drink to excess and if you do, shut up and drink in silence. A quiet drunk is like a quiet fool. And if you can't do either of those two things, don't decide to drunk-dial any of your old girl friends. Based on personal research it's a terrible idea that would only make sense to someone thoroughly inebriated. It has never been known to work out well, and you will wind up feeling even worse than you did before. These results never seem to vary.
So, just play it like you're a free safety in football. Keep all the play in front of you. Don't overreact and don't dive in. Permit yourself to enjoy the good parts, and when you hit a rough patch, just try to keep your balance and ride through it. Accept such moments as the price you have to pay for having a good time.
It's all going to be a distant memory in a very short time. Try to make it a good one.