I was deeply touched by the responses to a question I posed on Facebook recently when I asked for thoughts on why people become depressed (or more depressed) around the holidays and which holiday is the most challenging.

No one spoke about having to work on a holiday as a source of distress and no one mentioned cooking, but this was a limited sample.

A sense of loss was number one; loss of family members, traditions, and place (for those who have moved far away from what they call “home”), especially when the losses were irrevocable. Certain people in our lives seem to be beacons for how to celebrate and enjoy a holiday. One person described her deceased husband as loving Christmas so much that the tree kept getting bigger every year and they finally had to buy a bigger house. When he was gone, it was difficult to get into the spirit in the same way. Christmas is a time when we miss people the most. One person mentioned that her sadness since her husband’s death in Iraq is greater at Christmas because it reminds her that her children were too young to remember their father. He died when they were babies.

Right behind loss was the overwhelming sense of expectation; that holidays require being social and happy, buying gifts, buying the right gifts, accepting invitations, being as good as the media tells us we have to be, and accomplishing all this in a short period of time (if you haven’t been shopping all year!). December 26 is a day of enormous relief for many people. Maybe that’s the day the party should be held.

After expectations, a significant source of stress was family conflict at holiday events. Fights and arguments flare up when particular family members get together and/or distress is caused by new family members who don’t seem to fit in, or are disliked/resented by another member of the family. The first time I saw the National Lampoon Christmas movie I recognized aspects of my family immediately, especially the maniac decorator (my younger brother) and the oblivious relatives (some of my aunts and uncles). I remember a plate of Chinese food sailing across the table at one Christmas Eve dinner table from one of my brothers to the other as an argument ensued about money – and they were adults!

Several people mentioned the stress of having to take over and be in charge of family holiday traditions after the former elders or leaders have declined to continue or departed. I remember trying to replicate my mother’s twenty-five pound roast turkey with chestnut and milk cracker stuffing and her multitude of vegetable dishes the first time I took over the Thanksgiving dinner in my twenties. I wanted to make the meal exactly as my mother and grandmother had prepared it for fifty years before me. It had to taste the same. I felt as if I’d won the Olympic Gold Medal when my mother said the mashed potatoes were “not bad.” I also realized what an exhausting responsibility I’d taken on, even if I did enjoy the compliments on my cooking. The tradition had been that mom “did it all,” and now it was me.

A sense of loneliness was not often described, but it seemed implicit in many situations. It can be lonely at the top if you’re the one who’s arranging and cooking and placating the participants, or if there is no family to do things for, or with. One person who said she lives alone said that she usually receives an invitation for Thanksgiving, but never for Christmas. Loneliness can also feel more acute during the holidays if there is a family feud with people refusing to see or speak to other family members.


I’m sure all of this sounds familiar, but is there some way to prepare for or ward off some of this seasonal stress? Is there a “holiday shot” similar to a flu shot? The first step is to realize that it isn’t “just us.” We have our personal situations, losses and triggers, but there is also an atmosphere that pervades the universe as these events approach. We are surrounded by the commercial marketing of holidays.

Holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, are represented in images and sounds everywhere, especially in the United States. As early as October, the Norman Rockwell depictions of families gathered around a plump golden turkey begin to appear. Soon after that, or simultaneously, it’s a lighted tree where angelic children in their pajamas are happily placing ornaments, popcorn strings and tinsel, and behaving with more sweetness, cooperation and collaboration than they might at any other time of year. Religious organizations and institutions are drenched in heart wrenching sentimentality. The airways drone with Christmas carols, Bing Crosby, Feliz Navidad and the clanging bell of the Salvation Army.

From these continuous images of holiday shoppers looking successful and happy amid snowflakes on Christmas Eve, or wide-eyed children opening gifts, we are prompted and stimulated to recall our memories. We might be reminded of unfulfilled dreams, the Thanksgivings and Christmases that might have been. On television, old movies like “A Christmas Carol” and “Miracle on 42nd Street” take us through the story arc of loss, misunderstanding, revelation and redemption – except that, when someone is living with a loss, it’s difficult to get beyond act one. They may feel reluctant to go on the journey to a happy ending without the lost loved one because they fear leaving them in the past.

For those who have lost a spouse, a sibling, a partner, a parent or a child, the media bombardment during holidays is a painful reminder that someone we love is not in the picture. Even if life was not always easy with that person, these sights and sounds tend to make us cast a spotlight on all that was closeness, fun, conviviality and love.

I remember, after my husband was killed in Vietnam in 1969, well-meaning people asking me what I was going to do on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Living in the present is more comfortable for people in the acute stage of loss. Trying to imagine the future and make plans can be excruciating. I discovered it was good to plan ahead with a precise answer, “I’ll be with my family,” or “I’m going to Mexico.” Responding with, “I don’t know,” even if it was true, was more difficult and awkward in the early days of grief.

Finally, holidays tend to exaggerate our tendency to compare our situation with that of others. At Christmas or Hanukah after the loss of a child, it’s very difficult to watch other parents with children and not feel an agonizing sense of loss – and even anger and jealousy. It is perfectly acceptable to avoid those situations until you feel able to handle them.

There is no solution to feeling a greater sense of loss during holidays except the easing of pain that comes with the passage of time. But as we move through time, space and cultural milestones it can help to allow ourselves to acknowledge and recognize our feelings. The practice of mindfulness during these excruciating times can be as simple as acknowledging to yourself, “Yes, it’s painful to see couples holding hands.” This does not amount to acceptance of an unacceptable event, it is only a step towards recognizing feelings.

Perhaps one solution to holiday stressors and depressors is to re-imagine the holiday. Start with a small ritual that combines something from the past with your present experience. Create an altar of your favorite inspirational snippets of poetry and quotes, and reminders of people you love. Decorate it with objects and photographs. Light candles, and invite friends over to talk about their holiday memories. Find laughter. Rediscover the funny stories from the past. Believe that holidays are a time to do whatever you want, to celebrate however you want, to find what is precious and nourishing. Celebrate yourself and your successes. Remember that the word “holiday” is derived from “holy day.” Make it your own holy day.


Ruth W. Crocker is Chapter/Region Liaison for Gold Star Wives. She is the author of Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, a memoir, and many other magazine and journal articles. Visit her at www.ruthwcrocker.com.