"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Merry Chris.... er, Winter Solstice

Click the mini-player below to listen to a joyful holiday tune from Red Peters and His Swingin' Hamsters while you read this post:

As you can see by the picture on the right, the tree has gone up in the ol' Toast household and is being dutifully inspected by the cats, who are looking to see what kitty treats may be lurking beneath it. This event, plus hearing "Sleigh Ride" played on the radio for the humpteenth time (today) can only mean one thing: it's time for me to start taking my Xanax and drinking heavily. Yes, "The Christmas Season" has officially begun, and for most people, this inspires peace, joy, cheer, and a sense of belonging. It can be a fun time of year filled with parties, gatherings with family and friends, and optimistic hopes for the new year. For many others, however, it can also be a time of great anxiety and depression. I am one of the latter.

While there are numerous justifiable reasons for becoming anxious due to the stress of holiday shopping, cooking and entertaining, Holiday Depression goes much deeper than just having the "blues". In a recent survey, well over a quarter of respondents said that in an ideal world, they would like to go to sleep on December 23rd and not get out of bed until January 2nd. This would suit me just fine.

For a number of years, I have realized that I'm one of those affected by seasonal depression. I start becoming aware of a feeling of "dread" usually around the end of September. It gets considerably worse by the time the first Christmas music is heard in stores or on TV (mid-October!), and as of today, I have definitely reached the "freaking out" stage. So I wanted to use this post to write about some of the thoughts that make me feel this way; I know that they are irrational and unjustified, but I have them nevertheless. I am also aware of some methods recommended by medical professionals to control these anxieties, and writing about it is one thing that seems to help me cope.

There's a number of reasons why this is so common. The Thanksgiving to New Year's season occurs during the time of year when there are the fewest number of hours of daylight. Research has shown up to ten percent of the general population are significantly affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD); regardless of other holiday stress factors, sufferers of true Seasonal Affective Disorder may experience chronic fatigue, difficulty in sleeping, irritability, and feelings of sadness. Recently, there's been some evidence that light therapy, where people are exposed to artificial sunlight to augment the shorter days, can be of help.

Psychologists say that the single most significant factor that contributes to Holiday Depression is unrealistic expectations: the contrast between what we want and what we get, what should be and what is, what is and what was, what we expect of ourselves and others, and what we and others can really do. The media doesn't help very much with this, frequently presenting a Norman Rockwell image of a "perfect" Christmas featuring rosy-cheeked loved ones gathered around the present-laden tree, singing carols and enjoying cups of wassail after their sleigh ride over the river and through the woods to Grandma's house, while chestnuts roast on the open fire. For most of us, this image is unattainable even if we wanted it; but it conditions us to think that there's something "wrong" with us if we don't. More often, we remember at least one or two special years when as children, Christmas was indeed that magical time when dreams came true. We never stop being a kid at holiday time and wanting Christmas to be like that again. It seldom is for most adults, although having your own kids and being able to experience the joy of the holiday through their eyes can make a big difference.

Still, the stress to find the "perfect gift" can be overwhelming. We may subconsciously fear that others will judge us by the Christmas presents we give them, and that we are "good people" deserving of their affection only if we are able to correctly anticipate whatever object they might enjoy receiving more than anything else. Even though we know this isn't really true, we may still be affected by this subtle pressure to show people how much we care by the size, expense, or relevance of our gifts.

The perennial debate over the secular versus the religious aspects of Christmas can also dilute whatever goodwill comes with the season. I recognize and try to always remember that first and foremost, this holiday in fact celebrates the birth of Jesus, but I get weary of the endless controversy over this. Those who insist that stores should not even use the word "Christmas" because it contains a religious reference to Christ are misguided, and should get over it. But I'm equally exasperated at those who try to shove their religion down my throat by claiming that I'm a pagan for decorating my house with an image of Santa Claus. I want them all to just shut up and stop trying to tell others how to live their lives.

The troubled times we now live in can make the season even more disturbing as well. The phrase "peace on earth, good will towards men" seems like an ironic, cruel joke when people are killing each other in record numbers. Pessimists find it hard to hear Elvis sing "if every day were just like Christmas, what a wonderful world it would be", and not think "Dammit, it's not a wonderful world. It's filled with hatred that doesn't let up just because of a certain date on the calendar".

Fortunately, there's no shortage of helpful suggestions for fighting these negative thought patterns. Many tips can be found in this Newsweek article, or from this family therapist, or here, or here, or here. They boil down to a few simple ideas:

(1) Have more realistic expectations of yourself and others.
(2) Don't try to recreate the holidays as we knew them when we were kids or when first married, but try instead to create something that works for us now.
(3) Set reasonable financial goals for gift-giving and entertaining.
(4) Maintain a decent diet, regular exercise, and regular sleep patterns during the holidays.
(5) Count your blessings. Things are better than they may seem.

So I'm really trying not to be all "bah, humbug" over this and control my depression, and the final point in the above list brings me around to "Dear Abby". In an earlier post this week, I mentioned that I had been moved by a poignant letter in the newspaper advice column, and here it is:
DEAR ABBY: My husband and I were married for 35 wonderful years, and Christmas was our favorite time of year. As I sit here this morning, I remember all the time we wasted worrying about getting the "perfect" gift for everyone, when in reality the most perfect gift you can give is yourself and your love.

We had seven beautiful kids, 23 beautiful grandchildren and five adorable great-grandchildren, so it took a lot of time to shop for everyone. I realize that the most perfect gift would be to have my darling husband here with us. He passed away Oct. 10, 2003.

I now understand that the perfect gifts were the love and closeness we shared together, and you can't buy that in any department store.

So, Abby, please suggest to your readers that when they're agonizing about finding the perfect gift, they should look right under their own noses. They may find they already have it.

There's not much I can add to that, so here's wishing a joyous, relaxed, non-depressing holiday season to anyone reading this. Holy shit, it's Christmas!!...

...And to all, a good night.


  • At 12/06/2005 01:36:00 PM, Blogger Janelle said…

    I love Red Peters! I have a CD of his. The other Christmas song of his that I really like are "You Ain't Getting Shit For Christmas". My brother made a Christmas CD for everyone in the family one year as gifts and one I really like that he put on the disk is Porky Pig singing "Blue Christmas". It cracks me up everytime I hear it. I wish I could get that song on my blog...you may have to show me how it's done.

  • At 12/06/2005 10:01:00 PM, Blogger Mr. Toast said…

    Wow, this really hit home. I've never been a big fan of Christmas and I have no reason at all to feel this way. I get depressed and anxiety ridden as soon as Christmas stuff starts appearing in the stores. I think Christmas is the most stressful time of year. The sad thing is, I grew up with storybook Christmas'. My mom goes out of her way to make sure everything is perfect. I really want to do the same thing for Carson, but I find it very hard. Carson is the only grandchild so far so he is spoiled all year round...but Christmas is absolutely terrible. And with everyone trying to outdo each other (not on purpose of course) I feel pressured to get more and more for him. Being his mother, I know that my presents to him should be the best. I know, I know, it shouldn't feel like that, but it does. Anyway, this is getting long, but just wanted say that you are definately not alone on this!

  • At 12/08/2005 07:57:00 PM, Blogger bossann said…

    I've always been a gung-ho for Christmas kind of gal. I just can't get up any enthusiasm for this one though. By following the suggestion of setting realistic expectations for the holiday, I should expect no tree or lights at my house (who has the energy or inclination to crawl into the garage attic to find them?), maybe four presents (at least two of which will absolutely suck), a holiday meal with my dad and stepmother that I'll probably end up fixing (so that it won't be bland over-cooked mush), and watching "It's a Wonderful Life" alone. Maybe if I aim for this (and it isn't unreasonable) I'll end up pleasantly surprised (but I doubt it!)


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