When the Holiday Season Is Hard

When the Holiday Season is HardFrom our earliest days, we are flooded with “the magic of the holiday season.” No other time of year has more songs, movies, or made-for-TV specials devoted to it. The holidays are supposed to be a time of happiness, family, and gifts. They are supposed to be filled with parties and cookies and eggnog and laughter. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe.

So, what do we do when the holidays don’t measure up this expectation? What do we do when we don’t measure up to this expectation?

Christmas has always been one of my favorite holidays. I love the lights and the smell of the Christmas tree. I love the parties and gatherings—the tackier the sweaters, the better. I adore gift giving. For me, there are few things better than finding the perfect gift for someone and seeing their face when they open it. Or watching my kids’ eyes light up when they come down Christmas morning to see what “Santa” brought. Our Christmas is infused with traditions, both large and small, but each as meaningful as the next. And yes, I get stressed and I always try to do too much. And, yes, one of the traditions of Christmas is that mom will cry at some point—either because she burned the meatballs intended for the Christmas Eve party or because the cat knocked her favorite ornament off the tree and it shattered in a million pieces. But despite my self-imposed stress and holiday angst, I still love this season. It IS magical and I refuse to believe otherwise.

That is, I did believe it was magical and I did refuse to believe otherwise until I found myself standing in a Christmas tree lot, less than a week before Christmas, crying. Of course, you might think, “Oh, good, one tradition checked off the list.” But this was different. I wasn’t crying this time because the holiday wasn’t coming together in the perfect tinsel-wrapped, twinkling lights package that I was aiming for. This time I was crying because I just didn’t care if it even happened at all. I was crying because I couldn’t justify paying $85 for a tree that was going to stand in a living room by itself for a week, only to be taken down and thrown on the curb. I was crying because there were things going on in my personal life and in the lives of my kids that meant that this was going to be a rough Christmas. I was crying because I not only didn’t feel the magic, I no longer believed in it. And the loss was overwhelming.

My kids, who are fiercely loyal and protective of me (a fact for which I am eternally grateful), don’t do well with mom crying. After all, I’m the one who takes care of them, so if I’m not up to par, they’ll do any and everything in their power to get me back on track. They knew that things were not okay. After all, these were things that were affecting us all and had been for some time. So they immediately set out to fix it as best they knew how. They know how important Christmas is to me. Perhaps because they are a little older now, they not only see but acknowledge how much I do to create and preserve the magic. They immediately went into “save mom’s sanity mode” and pointed out that we didn’t need a Christmas tree. That we could do something creative. They were going to be with their father for Christmas Day, I would be with family, and they understood that no one would be around to appreciate the magic—even if I tried to make it appear out of thin air. And so we went to Target.

Later that night, as I sat staring at the $40 fake tree…which wasn’t just fake, but WHITE because we let the 11-year old pick it out…I felt myself spiraling out of control. Not only was my personal life in shambles, but I had a fake tree that looked more at home on the set of an elementary school Christmas play than in the corner of my living room. The same corner that had previously been dedicated to a live tree carefully hung with the ornaments that the girls and I have collected from every trip and special occasion throughout the past 17 years. Put simply, my life was the first half of It’s A Wonderful Life rather than the second.

Ultimately, I had to wonder whether I would be feeling the same levels of despair if the implosion of my world had been happening during another time of year. And the answer was simple, yet revealing. Yes, I would be devastated—in fact, I had been struggling months before Christmas. But the pressures of the holiday exacerbated everything. There was too much pressure. I had no space to grieve. I felt like I was suffocating in the knowledge that I still needed to go out amongst the masses and finish my Christmas shopping. I still had to open cards covered with smiling families when my own felt so incomplete. I still had to see friends and family and put on a fake smile because no one likes a Scrooge.

But the most important revelation was that I am not the only one. The holidays are hard, despite the twinkling lights and jingling bells. The holidays are a time of togetherness and reflection. They are a time of giving and receiving. So what happens when you are going through a hard time? The holidays only remind of it more. You feel buried under the need to shove it all down and carry on. In my case, I have kids that need to have a proper Christmas, regardless of my feelings. I refuse to take the magic from them. And I, like many others this time of year, felt that the pressure was too much to bear.

But as I stared at my horrible fake tree, and I will admit it might have just been the pre-lit white lights reflecting off the white plastic branches, I began to see a beauty in it that I hadn’t seen before. This was the tree that my kids had picked out to remind me of what Christmas was all about. In letting me off the hook, they were saying that the holidays are nothing more than a time to lean in. They are a time to call on family and friends and to revel in our blessings, even when they seem scarce. And they are a time to give to others in a way that we often forget to do throughout the year.

Just as my kids cared for me and saw my pain through the shiny façade of Christmas expectation, I want to recognize others who are suffering during this time of year. Studies show that addiction increases during the holidays. Depression spikes. Rehabilitation and treatment centers see a jump in their numbers. The holidays are NOT about magic. In fact, they can be a self-imposed prison if we allow them. But they CAN be a time of happiness. They can be a time of taking stock of what really matters. And they can be survived.

During the holidays, there are parents worrying that they won’t even have enough in their bank account to buy presents. There are families experiencing divorce. There are parents that sit with a sick child or family member in a hospital on Christmas Day. There are those staring at a tunnel of loneliness as the first holiday without a loved one approaches. There are those who are just grieving the loss of their dreams. There are those facing addictions and illnesses. And the list goes on.

Whatever the reason for feeling sad or less-than-magical on Christmas, it’s important to remember that it’s ok. The holidays are like a magnifying glass that makes loneliness seem lonelier and grief seem more painful. But this is just a season and it will pass. Just like your pain. The holidays are messy and hectic and, yes, sometimes, magical. But they are not anything more than we make them. We do have power over how, what, and who we celebrate during this time.

I hate my plastic tree. But I will still sit and bask in its light, reminding myself that it may not reflect my perfect Christmas plans, but it does reflect the love my daughters have for me. It shows their forgiveness for my humanity and their acceptance of my grief. And in that, I have the greatest gift of all.

Anna Strock
Anna has spent the last 18 years writing, directing creative projects, and trying to be the best mom possible to her three girls. When she's not exploring Richmond for the latest and greatest resources, offerings, and activities, she can be found daydreaming on travel blogs, drinking too much coffee, and running kids to endless activities.