A Christian Guide to Surviving Christmas
By Don Hires
We are fast approaching the countdown to the Christmas season. Back in July we started seeing holiday decorations appearing on store shelves, and long before Thanksgiving Christmas commercials were on television. Joy is supposedly all around us, but what should be a joyous time of the year is often not the case. For some there is a renewed sense of grief, past and present, for the loss of loved ones. This doesn’t mean that you recently lost a loved one. We are reminded of loved ones who died any number of years ago, and we grieve that we are no longer the family we once were. It’s an everpresent feeling of sadness that gets exacerbated by the coming of the holidays. For others it’s the most stressful time of the year. It’s not “the most wonderful time of the year with chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose, or Yuletide carols being sung by a choir.” The holidays, starting with Thanksgiving and all the way to the end of the year, can be sad, depressing and highly stressful.
Some of our sadness and stress comes from trying to live up to the ideal Christmas that Madison Avenue presents. Let’s be honest…..there is no ideal Christmas. We will none have a Norman Rockwell Christmas. In reality we are at a loss over our loss, and we are only making it worse by trying to live up to someone else’s hype of what this season should be.
As Christians, what we need to do is step back and take a look at what we want and don’t want the holidays to be while going through the grieving process. Here are some practical suggestions for celebrating the holidays in the midst of sadness, but without the stress.
First of all, be kind to yourself and take care of YOU. This is especially important at this time of the year. Too often we feel obligated to “carry on” as if nothing happened, and we find ourselves hurting on the inside, and putting on a mask so others don’t see our pain. It comes down to this: “Don’t do what you don’t want to do.” Allow your feelings to express themselves. They are your feelings, and you need to validate them. If you are sad, or angry, or need to cry, or even happy, allow yourself to express what you are feeling.
Spend some time in prayer and meditation each day. Take about ten or fifteen minutes and allow God to be present in your pain and stress, and open yourself to His presence. It’s amazing what He can do in such a short amount of time. Also, during the holidays there are going to be many worship services from which to choose, and you should be cautious in your choices. Attending a Christmas service is a subjective choice. You may opt to attend one or none. It depends on how difficult you feel it will be for you. Keep in mind that if you decide to attend one of the Christmas Eve services, and it becomes too difficult or overwhelming, you can always quietly leave at an appropriate time such as during a hymn when everyone is standing.
Decorating for the holidays can be daunting. You may be someone who not only put up one or more Christmas trees, but your whole house was decorated. You may want to scale back this year, particularly if decorating was a shared experience between you and your loved one. Maybe this isn’t the year you “pull out all the stops,” but maybe this is the year you bring out only a few decorations that are meaningful and bring comfort to you. This, too, is a subjective decision. Keep in mind, however, that if you decorate you whole house, sometime after Christmas it has to be packed away. So, be careful about over extending yourself.
As it’s been in the past, it will be now, you are going to receive invitations from family and friends to join in celebrations. Don’t isolate yourself by declining all of them, but do be judicious in what you accept. It may be best for you to accept an invitation where there will be a few close friends, and not a large gathering. You don’t have to go along with another’s plans, but you do need to be honest about your feelings, not only with yourself, but with family and friends, as well.
Should you decide to accept an invitation to a holiday party, here are some simple rules to follow: 1) Have an understanding with the host/hostess that if it becomes too difficult for , your plan it to quietly slip out. This doesn’t mean you leave without saying “goodbye: to the other guests. It simply means you leave without a lot of fanfare, and having others try to convince you to stay. 2) Try not to be the first to arrive at the party. If you do, don’t park in the driveway. Without question someone will park behind you, and you’ll have to ask them to move. This complicates your need to leave. 3) Park on the street, and if possible, with the front or rear of your car at the edge of the driveway. That way you won’t get boxed in. If you feel up to it, invite a few close friends to your home for a simple lunch or dinner, or just cake and coffee. But whatever you decide, don’t go overboard. The operative word is “simple.”
Take a look at what have been family traditions over the years. It’s o.k. that you don’t continue with them this year, and don’t feel guilty with “We’ve always done it this way.” This may be the year you decide to make some changes, and establish a new tradition. Maybe Christmas dinner at your house has always been a tradition. You might ask another family member to host this year. Don’t be shy about asking for help. Family and friends can’t read your mind.
One of the “traditions” we have been coerced into following is that of sending Christmas cards. Let’s be honest again. You receive a card, and on the front it says “Merry Christmas.” You open it and it says, “Happy Holidays, John and Betty.” Now you feel guilty that you didn’t send them a card, and worry “What will they think? Don’t do that to yourself! No one is going to get upset and have their Christmas ruined because you didn’t send them a card. If the loved one who died was your spouse, keep in mind that you will be signing only your name to the card. Greeting card companies have a way of making us feel guilty because we didn’t “care enough to send the very best.” Your “very best” should be taking care of yourself.
The same is true with gift giving. Every year most of us spend money we don’t have, because we feel we have to purchase a gift for everyone from the paper boy, to the mail man, to the trash collector, as well as family members. First of all, take a long hard look at your gift list. Who on the list can you take off? Secondly, don’t put the added stress of shopping on yourself. We find ourselves running from store to store to store, looking for the perfect gift for each person on our list. Let’s face it! There is no perfect gift. So, judiciously decide who stays on the list, and who gets taken off this year. Don’t be shy about scratching off names. Now, decide how much you want to spend on each person, and keep the amount within reason, and spend only what you can afford. The easiest thing to do is go to the nearest major grocery store or office supply and look through the display of gift cards. There you will find everything from Amazon to Zaxby’s. In less than an hour you have done all of your shopping, avoided long lines, and protected yourself from a lot of unnecessary stress. Plus, the recipient gets to purchase the “perfect gift” for himself or herself.
Instead of gifts for everyone, consider the combining all of the money you would have spent on others and making a contribution to you loved one’s favorite charity. You might also think about a local organization that will be providing Christmas dinner for the homeless, Toys-for-Tots, the Salvation Army, or any other local charity where your money will be put to good use.
Keep in mind that there is a difference in celebrating the holidays, and observing the sanctity of Christmas. The holidays include, but are not limited to July 4th, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day; none of which are biblical. This is not to say that these days don’t have significance for us, and may because of our past relationship, resurrect some of our grief and sadness. It’s quite possible some of these days were special to our loved ones, and were celebrated with intent. However, Christmas, like Easter, stands alone in its sacredness. It’s when God calls us into a remembrance and renewed relationship with Him in Christ our Savior, and He wants to console us in our sorrow and sadness. Let us not miss the opportunity to experience the Infant Christ, and as He grows in us, we grow in Him.
Copyright: December 2017, Grace Episcopal Church, Ocala, Florida. No part of this booklet may be reproduced without prior permission of the publisher. Published by: Grace Episcopal Church, Ocala, Florida. “Coping With The Holidays Checklist” is reprinted with permission from Bereavement Magazine, 1991.