This week I was asked to develop an article for a local weekly. The topic? Surviving Stress During The Holidays. I happily obliged—I am always game to write pretty much anything—and, putting pen to paper, I coughed out many sage suggestions: Don’t spend more than you can afford. Limit the number of events you attend. Sleep, Dear. Eat properly, Dear. Don’t drink too much alcohol, Dear (and for God’s sake call a cab to take you home if you do, Dear) All very upbeat. All very trite. Precisely what I had been asked to contrive, and I would have absolutely rounded the article off in this vein, except…the counselling sessions I’d had all week were nagging me, and the more superficial tips I cranked out, the more the echoes of these sessions resonated.
Like over-played Christmas carols which always seem to hit the radio earlier every year, the refrains from clients who’d come to see me shared similar chords: Anxiety at having to face impending family functions. Knots of dread in bellies. Frightened tears. “Families can be soul-crushing places”, a wise spiritual leader once told me and the folks in my counselling chair were the reflections of this sentiment. Their countdowns were not to the Big Day itself but rather to when it would just All.Be. Over.
It was in the shadow of these sessions that I pushed my spritely little article aside, examined my own banal definition of stress—and watched it become pale. Shameful. Sitting in the imagined feelings of my clients, I considered ‘stress’ through their lens and saw that my happy little ‘Top-Ten List’ article completely invalidated what the season of Christmas entails versus what so very many are capable of.
So. Surviving Stress at Christmas.
What might that really be like?
How do you mend the hollow ache within the widower whose favourite season has always been Christmas? He used to start preparing months in advance, but...he buried his wife of fifty years this past summer and now has to face his first holiday alone.
What solace do you offer the child whose parents finally split last spring? This is the first holiday where she’ll not wake Christmas morning and have them both under one roof. She’s sick inside, having to be with one and not the other. She loves them both and her secret Christmas wish is that they’ll get back together, a Santa request that will not, and likely should not, come true.
There’s the addict who has burned every bridge and alienated everyone. Her Christmas means queuing up at a shelter for a dinner decked out by strangers in Santa hats who ladle precise portions onto the anonymous plates drifting by. She thinks of her father who in turn wishes his other kids would re-open their hearts, invite her back to their own celebrations….but he understands why they won’t.
For the chronically, clinically depressed single mother whose internal life has no lustre yet whose children expect, and legitimately want, a happy day filled with the baking, the glitter, the red bows and crackling fires they see on TV.
The child who dresses himself for his Christmas concert and watches, up on stage, his classmates find the faces of their families in the audience—but knows no one has come to see him.
How do they Survive Stress At Christmas?
I can assure you they do not manage it by reading my bouncy little Top Ten List. Or any other, for that matter. Their stress is such that there is no way to solve it, heal it, or make it even remotely better. They will endure this holiday season like a strand of lights with one colour burned out (you know the ones—you were going to replace them during an after-Christmas sale last year but never did and now here they are again). They hang on the tree like they are supposed to, but don’t shine in the way they once could.
North America has become singularly belligerent about Christmas: “There is a war on Christmas!” some cry and there ensues a demand to say “Merry Christmas!” instead of shaking it up with a “Happy Holidays” or a “Season’s Greetings” (implying, incidentally, that someone or some group along the way has suggested we shouldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas’—yet poll individuals you know, and get back to me please, if you encounter anyone who has actually had someone tell them, to their face, that they cannot say ‘Merry Christmas’. Find one—just one— and I personally will pour you a rum-n-eggnog). In short, there is a massive contingent of people who believe we’ve somehow “beaten up” Christmas. It is ironic that only a shadowy margin of this same number will reflect on how this holiday, the way we have allowed it to morph as though it were its own pious and perfect entity, beats up the bereft. How every commercial, every storefront, every display in even a supermarket, and, yes, every greeting—Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays—tosses acid in a weeping wound.
Because the real ‘wars’ at Christmas are fought on an internal landscape that few ever see and not many want to think about.
With that in mind I reworked my little article on Stress Survival, massaged in a few gentle reminders that not all folks crank up Jingle Bells at this time of the year and nor do they slide on their slippers and watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Oh, I kept the trite stuff too, not to worry. It is important, after all, to remember that there’s not a single thing wrong with having too many invitations to manage at Christmas, or with having too much food and a never-ending diet (I’m so there), or a gift list that doesn’t remotely connect with the ol’ bank balance. (Been to that movie too). In fact none of what I have said should in any way make anyone feel like they cannot be happy during the holidays. On the contrary; as a counsellor I believe we actually have a duty to ourselves to be authentic in whatever we are feeling—and that absolutely includes joy and gladness.
But that also means we have the right to feel dread instead of anticipation. Heartache as opposed to happiness. Let tears fall instead of having laughter ring.
We have the right to say “Help me.” “Hold me.” “Listen to me.”
In other words, we have the right to whatever our own definition of ‘stress’ is.
And with that, we in turn have the right to eschew the banalities that embrace this season. Myself, I don’t necessarily know who are the lonely, the bereft, the grieving, or the lost. The shunned or the exiled. They are mostly invisible. So with my more robust—and infinitely more uncomfortable—definition of ‘stress’ in mind, when I see folks this season, in stores, on the streets, or in my counselling room, I will be warm. I will smile. Very often I grasp the hands of people when I greet them and I will continue to do this too. But I think I won’t offer tidings of the season. Not first, at any rate. And when or if said tidings are offered to me, I believe I will respond, merely, with “Peace.”
And may peace embrace you.