Advertising suggests that Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. A song proclaims that this is “the most wonderful time of the year.” But for some, each holiday season can become a time of gloom.
Perhaps it brings up memories of lost loved ones. Or it might be the cloudy skies bringing on a case of seasonal affective disorder.
Whatever the cause, mental health and faith leaders recognize the Blue Christmas syndrome.
“I think a lot of people would say that the holidays are the worst time of the year,” said Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in an interview with WebMD. “Many feel miserable, and that’s not only for people with clinical depression.”
Our Faith turned to two local clergy for helpful guidance.
The Rev. Mike Stone, rector of Houston’s St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church said that he starts by differentiating the concepts of joy and happiness.
“They might not have much in common,” he said. “Happiness seems to hang precariously at every moment. If the goose is overcooked, dinner is ruined. If the shirt doesn’t fit, then the gift is ruined. If I don’t feel as good as I hoped, Christmas might be in jeopardy for the family. Joy, on the other hand, seems able to handle disappointment and pain and loss and still maintain an openness to connection and the future beyond circumstances.”
So, he suggests, look for opportunities to find true joy during the holidays.
“This time of year invites us to experience the natural rhythms of making things new and making up for transgressions,” Stone said. “Rituals and practices, like carols and gift-giving, are meant to guide us to some truly special moments of connection and joy, but sometimes we over emphasize the rituals and forget the connection that they were there to provide in the first place.”
The subtle, even paradoxical path Stone finds toward joy is to recognize sorrow first, a pattern he uncovers in the Christmas story itself.
“The infant Jesus was born out of wedlock, likely to a very young mother in an inn where he was laid in a food trough for animals,” Stone said. “The entire story is colored with disappointment, threat and even scandal. And yet it is also filled with joy. Maybe this is the way for Christians to help claim and cultivate joy and to offer the present of presence with those who laugh or weep or mourn or give.”
The Rev. Robin Reeves, pastor of Texas City’s St. George’s Episcopal Church, added her ten tips on making the most of the holidays (see box).
Another bit of good news: For years, some media have asserted that the suicide rate went up each holiday season. The Centers for Disease Control has looked carefully at the actual trends and found that it actually goes down a bit at this time each year.
Later, a number of local churches will offer special Blue Christmas services here soon. Watch these pages for details.
Happy holidays from Our Faith.
Next week in Our Faith: Hanukkah memories.