Ah, Christmas. A time of peace, love, joy, and hope. Or something. Sometimes Christmas can feel more like a time of anxiety, fighting, grief, and dread. Not exactly emotions that bring to mind the Christ Child.
The first time I recognized that Christmas could be a time that wasn’t purely merry, I was nine-years-old and my mom’s father, my Poppa, had died a few months before. He lived with us my whole life and was never sick, not even with a cold, until the months before he passed away. That year, there was no festive photoshoot with us kids. There were no weeks of baking leading up to the day, no tree, and no lights. We made sure to leave a note for Santa about our whereabouts and spent Christmas with my other grandparents. Christmas was never the same in our house after that.
Grief is a huge factor in how many people celebrate — or have difficulty celebrating — what is supposed to be the “hap-happiest season of all.” I remember hearing my mom say that she hated Christmas in the years that followed Poppa’s death. I took it personally. She had loved the season because he had loved it, and it was a time when she could show him love by celebrating the traditions they had when she and her sisters were growing up. With both of her parents gone, I can understand how grief soured a family-focused holiday for her. It was years before we would decorate the front yard again, years before we were allowed to play Christmas albums on the stereo again.
It’s been 18 years now since that first difficult Christmas, and I keep waiting for Christmas to be easy for our family again, but there’s so much about the season that is still difficult. Christmas is expensive for a large family. Traditions are hard to keep up when the time we get to spend together is now limited by vacation days and seat sales. The meaning of the season gets fuzzy when the whole family doesn’t want to celebrate the birth of the Savior anymore. And conflict inevitably abounds when five grown children and their significant others are all under one roof for too long. Not to mention the very specific grief of spending Christmas with your younger siblings, all with partners, wondering whether you’ll ever have someone to bring home to meet them.
I can’t think of a grown person I know who can’t relate to these anxieties in some way. But I know it’s tempting to think that I’m the only one who dreads Christmas for these reasons.
Here are some of the biggest sources of anxiety and ways I try to cope with them in my life:
Make time to honor the memory of your lost loved ones. For my family, we do this by listening to Poppa’s favorite Christmas albums, lighting extra candles at church on Christmas Eve in memory of those we’ve lost, or making donations in their honor. The best way we have to deal with our grief at Christmas is to share and relive our favorite stories of Christmases past. Most importantly, we allow ourselves to grieve. Inevitably, there are tears shed on Christmas morning, and we embrace them with hugs and comfort and more eggnog. Giving your tears room to fall and your grief room to breathe makes it much easier to experience the genuine joy that isn’t possible when we repress our feelings.
In my house, if any of the “kids” are having a disagreement with each other or with our parents, voices are raised and feelings are hurt. The best way I’ve learned to deal with fighting at Christmas is to turn my anger or frustration into action. And no, I’m not referring to punching my brother or sister, which is a tactic I’ve used in the past with minimal long term advantage. When I’m frustrated with a family member, I find something to do rather than fight; ideally I find a way to serve the person I’m upset with. Make hot chocolate. Go wrap their gift. Offer to turn on the Christmas special they prefer. Stop cheating at Monopoly. These are all easy and fun distractions from a fight and a good way to remember that you actually love the pain in the neck who insists on fighting with you at Christmas.
Money has got to be one of the main sources of anxiety at Christmas, a time when most of us express our love through gifts. Gifts are fun, but they can be a real strain on the wallet, especially as families expand. A few years ago, the five kids in my family started drawing names and only buying for one sister/brother/significant other each Christmas. It has been a really fun way to be extra thoughtful and intentional about our gift-giving while also saving money. It has the added bonus of helping us get to know our adult siblings or sisters-in-law better. I’ve drawn my brother Alec’s name two years in a row, and while we disagree on plenty of things, it’s given me a chance to appreciate all the many more things that we have in common, like a love of board games and good Scotch. We are big fans of edible and homemade gifts in our family, especially when we give outside of the immediate family, which is another great way to be thoughtful on a budget.
Christmas isn’t an inherently romantic season, but with twinkling lights, fireplaces, soft white snow, and in-laws abounding, it can be one of the worst times to be alone. Add to that the inevitable questions from well-meaning relatives and friends and Christmas is an undeniably stressful time to be single. I deal with this reality best by making a point of using every minute of my Christmas holidays to invest in my family. It’s also an opportunity for me to exercise my sense of humor by posing with my little sister or baby nephew when the rest of my siblings pose with their significant others by the tree, and to appreciate that I don’t need to share my chocolate orange with anyone.
As long as Christmas includes other people (or the absence of other people), it will be a time with high potential for conflict and anxiety, but that’s not what the season is about. This Christmas, it’s my prayer that instead of running from the holiday, we can run into the arms of the Prince of Peace. Make it yours too.