With Thanksgiving recently past and Christmas coming up quickly, I’ve been spending some time reading articles, posts, and books on how grief impacts our ability to successfully navigate the holidays. A Google search will produce literally hundreds of “helpful hints”, and lots of ideas as to how we can survive the coming weeks. In fact, I read three books this week with the word survive, surviving, or survival in the topic!
That caused me to begin to wonder when a celebration of the birth of the Savior, the one who brought hope to us, became something that we must endure, or survive!? How is it that the single most hopeful event in all human history has become a burden to us? The holiday season is, admittedly, the most stress-inducing time of the year. But why? Why does it weigh on us so heavily? Why are so many overwhelmed with suffocating emotions, and paralyzing depression?
Several sources I read indicated that expectations are the number one reason we feel overwhelmed by the holidays. According to these authors, those expectations can be ones I put upon myself, or they can come from others who have their own expectations of how I should behave, react, or what I should do.
I grew up in Michigan, and in our home Christmas was a major annual undertaking!! Every year it was what my own children would later call a “Michigan Christmas”! We looked forward to it, complete with all the trappings – even after Dave and I married and had our own children. And that’s the way we raised ours! The search for the perfect Christmas tree, bringing it home and decorating it, and adding all those foil icicles that made the tree look like (as my husband once said) “an explosion of an aluminum factory”! We baked cookies, spent an afternoon decorating them, created gifts for our parents in the “secret” workroom downstairs. Then, of course, there was the shopping and wrapping and hiding under the tree. We had a special Christmas Eve candlelight service, and afterwards everyone received their bag of candy and peanuts, and Dad drove us all over town looking at Christmas light displays. Then there was the Sunday-before-Christmas children’s program, for which we all memorized and performed special songs and recitations to the delight of the older folks in the congregation. Christmas cards, presents, lights, snow, special treats, and family times with both sets of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. It was a wonderful time to be a child!
This year I realized that somewhere along the line, I internalized all those things to become my own expectations of what Christmas should be like for my own family. As the years passed, we made our own family traditions that included Christmas cards, hand crocheted stockings, searching for or creating the perfect gifts, church programs, concerts, big meals, and gatherings with family and friends. To say nothing of the tree and the decorations, including the dozens of nativities I collected over the years.
Now, it’s time for the reality check. As the years have gone by, the children have become adults and had their own children. For many years they all came home for Christmas with all the excitement and all the things that went with what that “should” look like! I loved those big gatherings, and nothing brings fun to Christmas like having small children around. But like everything in life, the years pass, and things change. Therein lies the rub… I don’t want things to change.
I want to hold onto my expectations for Christmas that are buried deep in my heart where no one really sees them. I want to continue forever to experience the wonder of those old “Michigan Christmases”. When I began to think about why I was feeling sad this year as Christmas approaches, I realized it’s because I’m resisting change. The reality is that things have changed greatly. My children are gone and married. Their children are beginning to leave home and are starting to return to their own homes for the holidays. I’ve always wanted my kids to create their own family traditions, but now it’s more difficult to know where I fit into that picture. They no longer come to my home, so for several years Dave and I went to their homes on Christmas Day. And now even Dave is gone.
Things are changing more rapidly than I want them to. The kids are grown up, most of the grandkids are grown, there are no little ones to spark the excitement. Christmas for me has changed drastically, but one thing remains. The purpose is still to celebrate the most hope-filled day in human history – the birth of Christ. As I look at the rest, it occurs to me that we need to manage our expectations. Especially if you are in a season of grief, this becomes critical. Here are some things that can help relieve the stress and the emotional meltdowns.
First, make a list of what expectations you are feeling about the holidays. You can put them into categories if that’s helpful: traditions, obligations, habits, and things you enjoy doing. Some things we only do because we’ve always done them. Other things are traditions we want to maintain. Sometimes other people have expectations of us like hosting the family gathering and doing all the cooking!
Once you’ve identified the expectations, think about which ones cause you the most stress. Do you feel up to attending parties and social events? Can you manage the cards this year? Do you need to simplify shopping? You may find that it’s better for you to simply eliminate some of these things. Maybe you don’t feel up to handling decorations for a year or two. Make the changes necessary for you to keep your focus on the celebration and the true reason for it. If something won’t be important three months from now, it probably is okay to streamline it.
There’s much grace and peace in realizing that our Heavenly Father doesn’t hold expectations for us. We don’t have to accomplish a list of things for Him before Christmas! He loves us just as we are, whether or not we are performing to our full capacity. Take time during this holiday season to just sit with Him in the quiet, pondering the miracle of all that He’s done for us. He will meet you in that quiet place and assure your heart that you only perform for an Audience of One.
Have a wonderful Christmas and feel free to leave your thoughts and comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.