Growing up my mom absolutely loved the holidays. Our family would head downtown to see the Christmas displays in the department store windows, watch the enormous toy train set in the train station lobby and visit the Santas from around the world on display in PPG Place, a beautiful glass tower complex that shined like diamonds in the winter sunlight. When we were inside the building surrounded by glass, it felt like we were in a snow globe as the white, dancing flurries fell gently all around us. Mom would read each region’s story to us so we could learn how other cultures experienced the tradition of Santa Claus.
Many years our tree would have a unique theme or color and we would hunt for the pink, red or gold decorations, lights and ornaments we needed to complete my mom’s vision for the festivities that year. In addition to seeking the right colored ornaments in a world without the internet, we spent the weeks before Christmas baking dozens and dozens of cookies, building gingerbread houses, driving through seasonal light displays, sipping hot tea and chocolate, listening to traditional music and caroling outside our neighbors’ houses.
Come Christmas eve, we would happily wear dazzling new dresses with matching shoes and tights. My sister and I would proudly carry our color coordinated purses filled with candy and small toys to midnight mass on Christmas eve after our big family traditional dinner of homemade pierogi, mushroom soup, bread, fish, honey and a sip of Manischewitz grape wine. The evening was spent with mom’s family and our five older cousins. Opening all of our gifts was an explosion of wrapping paper and chaos.
Christmas morning our living room was overflowing with presents we certainly didn’t need or deserve. In the afternoon, we would gather with my dad’s side of the family. My sister and I were the only grandchildren on that side. It seemed the entire day was consumed with unwrapping more of our gifts.
On New Year’s Eve, we would place our coins out on the window sill and carry in the wealth in the morning to superstitiously signify wealth coming into our lives all year. The night was another big family party with tasty appetizers and all of us banging pots and pans loudly with wooden spoons outside at midnight to scare Santa back to the North Pole. On New Year’s Day, we enjoyed a traditional meal of pork and sauerkraut with the homemade dumplings. We seemed to only have the privilege of enjoying these dumplings on this special day.
It was truly magical, most years.
Other years, my mom was more like the Grinch. She would steal the holiday spirit right out of the room. As I got older, I watched my mom transform into a more miserable spirit who couldn’t put forth the effort or share in the joy of the season. I felt sad for my sister and myself. I was sad for my dad and our extended family. It is hard to see the light fade away and the joy dwindle especially when it had been such a bright and festive spectacle when we were smaller.
Depression is tricky like that. The anxiety of a house full of relatives. The pressure to buy the perfect presents. The cooking, baking, cleaning, wrapping – even the task of getting dressed is sometimes too much when someone’s mental health is hanging on by a thread.
Sometimes choosing yourself and your own company is the best answer. It’s hard to do it without feeling like you let everyone else down.
I’ve spent the holidays with my dad and his relatives while my mom hid at home. That’s okay too. Allow folks, especially the ones you love the most to make their own decisions about how to spend their holiday and who to spend it with.
Fortunately, my dad modeled grace and acceptance when allowing my mom to figure out her own moods. He set an example that you love folks right where they are without trying to change them. Over the years, they successfully navigated the ups and downs of the season while battling my mom’s depression.
I learned to allow fluctuations in mood, mine and others, without judgement or forceful attempts to cheer anyone up.
It’s hard to be alone when your loved ones may be angry or resent your decision to skip the group festivities this year. All of us need to do a better job or respecting our loved ones abilities, limits and boundaries.
Each of us is responsible for our own happiness.
We cannot make anyone else happy – we shouldn’t even try.
Happiness is an inside job.
Our job is to love people right where they are. Sometimes right in the center of their misery.
My partner and I have very different holiday traditions. We were together 15 years before we ever put a Christmas tree in our own space. His nonexistent expectations helped me find what Christmas means to me. I love spirited decorations, sparkly Christmas cards, beautifully wrapped presents, rich, tasty foods, fancy outfits adorned with special make-up, glitzy jewelry, and a unique hair style! Some years I go 100% all in, some years I do not. No pressure.
No pressure from my family because they saw what my mom went through. No pressure from my partner, because he’s not fulfilling an obligation or checking a box of “things we’ve always done”. No pressure from me.
I am who I am and my moods fluctuate.
Last year my partner and I decided to make a duck for the first time on Christmas day. We celebrated a little bit too much and passed out early in the afternoon, then woke up after 6 p.m. We ended up eating a frozen pizza and preparing the duck later that week.
Let yourself off the hook and have the holiday you want.
This year we’re going a little more traditional. I’ll make the ham and my grandmother’s scalloped potatoes. We’ll share the day and the food with his family. I’ll dress up. I already mailed out my Christmas cards (for the first time in many years). Our tree is up and even our bathroom is decorated with a winter themed shower curtain, hand towel and a little matching soft baby blue gnome. A first for us! I’m 42 and this is the very first year my bathroom has ever been decorated.
We won’t have many presents because we’re spending time in a cabin for the New Year and that trip is the present for my sister, my two brothers-in-law and my sister-in-law. Planning a combined family event also takes time and effort, but the four days together will help us form stronger bonds and be more memorable than a sweater or a new smart watch.
This is what I can do. This is what I want to do. This is what I feel like doing.
Not every year has to be the same. Not every year has to be a big celebration and feast. For mental health tips about managing the holidays read Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for Coping written by the Mayo Clinic Staff.
I need to be more careful not to become so excited about the holidays, seeing family and celebrating that I stop sleeping and grow too manic. WebMD writes about ways to prevent that complication in Bipolar Disorder: Handling the Holidays by R. Morgan Griffin.
Where on the spectrum do you fall, are you rushing around in a manic holidaze or has the madness of depression, anxiety, and the Grinch spirit stolen your light?
Give yourself the present of better self-care this holiday season and design the experience you really want.
Stop forcing activities to bring other people joy.
Do what brings you joy.
The genuine joy you experience will feel good and spread to those around you. That is what the holidays are really about – pausing to enjoy cheer and well being with the ones we love the most.