When Holidays Aren’t Happy

Recently I was asked to speak to several hundred people who openly admit they dread the holidays.  The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas isn’t the favorite for a lot of people.  I’ve read there is more alcohol consumption, more domestic fights, more arrests, more suicides and more people battling depression during the holidays than any other time of year.

Dr. Ken Duckworth, Medical Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness wrote, “I think a lot of people would say that the holidays are the worst time of the year.  They’re just straight up miserable, and that’s not only for people with clinical depression.”

Why is that?  Why does the “hap, hap happiest time of the year” become the gloomiest time of the year for so many?  If I were going to list the top 5 reasons that holidays are difficult for a lot of people it would be as follows:

(5) Bad memories. Some had very poor childhood experiences every holiday: dad got drunk, mom was stressed out, they never got the presents they hoped for or they had to travel to Grandma’s house and it wasn’t any fun.  Those childhood memories are deeply embedded in the mind and subconsciously surface leading up to the holidays.

(4) Over-commitment. There’s just too much to do and the holidays are stressful.  This is especially a problem for mothers of young children as well as homemakers.

(3) Financial pressure. People spend more than they can afford so their kids will have a Merry Christmas.  They feel guilty about overspending or discouraged because they know what they face when the credit card bills come due the end of January.

(2) The empty chair. Some folks used to really enjoy the holiday season because they were with people they loved.  But now someone who meant the world to them has died.  The kids moved away.  Your child is in the military overseas.  You went through a divorce, or the holidays remind them that they’re still single.  There is a gnawing loneliness.

(1) Unrealistic expectations. Television ads and Hallmark cards create an image of a warm, family-centered Christmas.  Everyone is exchanging gifts of love, everyone is smiling and hugging while the snow is gently falling outside and the fireplace is aglow.  (It’s kind of where Thomas Kincaid meets the Budweiser Clydesdales pulling a sleigh through the fresh fallen snow.)

Reality is not like that.  People are alone. Families are divided.  Kids are on drugs. There are harsh words.  Dad sits in the easy chair and won’t help out with the lights.  Mom nags.  Kids complain.  Somebody refuses to come.  We have to walk on eggshells because of someone’s sensitive feelings.  There’s such a gap between what should be and what is…and it’s magnified at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

We would do well to remember the first Thanksgiving wasn’t perfect.  Forty five of the 102 settlers who arrived on the Mayflower died that first year.  Their homes were little more than huts and their futures were uncertain. While some of the Native Americans were friendly, others were threatening.  Yet the Pilgrims paused to thank God for His goodness in providing enough harvest that they had a chance to survive the upcoming winter.

The First Christmas was far from perfect also.  Mary and Joseph were under stress to find a place to stay.  They spent the night in some kind of stable where animals were housed.  A baby was born without any professional care, anesthesia or sterile conditions.  When they finally settled down for rest there was a knock on the barn door and smelly shepherds wanted to see and hold the Christ-child.  That must have been a far cry from what Mary had imagined that day when Gabriel informed her she was going to give birth to the Son of God.

I closed my talk last week discussing some practical ways to get through the holidays with a positive spirit.  Those included: (1) Plan something you really like to do the day after.  (2) Do something to help someone else andfake it ‘til you make it.  (3) Be flexible; make reasonable adjustments.  (4) The most important is to really focus on Christ—on what the season is all about.

Dr. Bob Fife, Milligan College professor, related that when he was a twenty year old boy he was a soldier fighting his way through Western Europe.  On Christmas Eve, his small contingent bunked down in an old barn outside Paris.  That night he really felt sorry for himself.  He thought, “Fife, this is as low as it gets.  It’s Christmas Eve.  Last year I was in a warm home with my parents and loved ones.  This year, I’m thousands of miles from home, alone in a cold barn and I don’t know if I’ll live through tomorrow.  It can’t get much worse than this.”

Then it hit him.  That’s what the first Christmas was like.  Jesus left His comfortable home in heaven and spent His first night in a cold barn, subject to all kinds of dangers.  That Christmas Eve in France became one of the most memorable of Bob Fife’s life as he thanked God and developed a deeper appreciation of what Jesus did for him.

The Holidays aren’t really about perfect relationships, joy-bells ting-a-linging and warm hugs around a perfect dinner table.  It’s giving genuine thanks for this marvelous, incredible story: that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.  It’s being reminded of a marvelous promise that even though life here is imperfect, we have a perfect inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, that will be kept in heaven for us.

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