Seems like an oxymoron. But is it?
A 2018 survey found that 88% of Americans feel stressed during the holiday season (1).
Why is it that during the season of joy, the majority of Americans find themselves in despair?
The cause is multi-faceted. Thankfully, the solution is straightforward.
I think this is a question that can be answered by taking a look at Charles Dickens’A Christmas Carol. In this classic work, Ebenezer Scrooge, a cold-hearted cheapskate is visited by three spirits - the Spirit of Christmas Past, the Spirit of Christmas Present and the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.
Shortly after the stroke of midnight, the first spirit pays Scrooge a visit and takes him to scenes of a more innocent time, his childhood.
The scenes are filled with nostalgia and delight, but the reader quickly learns that not all is as it would seem on the surface. Underneath the delights of his beloved sister, a father-like employer and a faithful fiancée there lurks sadness and despair, largely a result of the man that Ebenezer was turning into.
For many of us, our nostalgia of the past brings with it great joy but also brokenness. We are excited by the memories of more innocent times, but lament the loss of what could-have-been. We fondly remember the time spent with loved ones, but are sobered by the reality that some who have meant so much to us are no longer in our lives.
The Spirit of Christmas Past reminds us that relationships with others are one of the greatest sources of joy, but for some, are also a great source of sorrow.
In the next encounter with the spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Ebenezer through scenes of celebration and delight. We are quickly reminded that in the midst of abundance, we still experience the reality of our circumstances.
There is no better illustration of this than what Scrooge experiences in the home of his faithful employee, Bob Cratchit. Despite a meager Christmas celebration, the Cratchit family recognizes that they have much to be thankful for. Their glee is quickly contrasted by the reminder of Tiny Tim’s illness and the reality that he is nearing death.
In our modern reality, much of our stress is a result of the expectations that we have for ourselves, for others and for the perceived expectations we think others have for us. The gatherings we participate in, which bring with them great joy, still carry with them the weight of the logistics involved in producing the celebration. A lot of effort goes into preparing food, hosting guests and cleaning up afterward. It costs money to produce a feast and purchase gifts for others.
In addition to the tangible elements of holiday gatherings, there are many relational considerations that bring with them great joy and great consternation. We have expectations of others, and they have expectations for us. In our time spent together, along with nostalgic stories of Christmases long, long ago are discussions about divisive topics like politics, religion or money.
These interactions also bring with them the stress of time away from work (or working when you shouldn’t be), over-indulgence of foods that affect our minds and our bodies and a lack of routine, which oftentimes results in an absence of exercise.
Like the first encounter with the Spirit of Christmas Past, we realize that there is a cost associated with spending time with those we care about. Those costs include expectations, both met and unmet, which combined with the logistical and practical stresses involved in our gatherings, can quickly lead to anxious feelings.
The last encounter Ebenezer has with the spirits is with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This spirit presents Scrooge with the harsh reality of his own mortality. To make matters worse, he is met with the reality that there is no lament or sorrow over his death because he has lived a life that was not worth celebrating.
This sobering experience changes Scrooge in a profound way. He realizes that though his miserly ways contributed to his wealth, they also cost him something far greater. His abundance ultimately meant nothing if it cost him the very things that brought true joy.
The causes of holiday blues are different for each of us. Your past, present and future realities are not the same as the next person. While we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we respond. So, what is it that we can do to fight for joy?
The antidote to sorrow is gratitude.
There is scientific evidence that suggests that having a grateful outlook on life leads to increased optimism and happiness. This study also found that those who actively focused on gratefulness, rather than burdens, exercised more frequently and had fewer visits to the doctor’s office (2).
Like any other skill, gratefulness requires practice. Here are some techniques that you can use to develop an attitude of gratitude, according to the Harvard Medical School (3):
As we enter the holiday season, it seems appropriate that it would begin with a day of giving thanks. This simple act redirects our attention from ourselves to the blessings we have been given.
If you find yourself feeling a bit overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, know that you are not alone. Take a moment to step back and reflect upon the things that bring you joy.
From all of us at Utzy, thank you for being a part of our family. It is our hope that you have a joyful holiday season. To quote Tiny Tim, the beloved Dicken’s character, “God bless us, every one!”
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