Walking through the house yesterday morning, I caught a snippet of a Christmas-themed episode of the cartoon Home. Tip, the little girl, was explaining the concept of Christmas to her alien friend, Oh, and her imagery expanded into a rosy thought bubble floating over Oh's head, with a warm fireplace, mountains of gifts beside a majestic tree, a benevolently smiling Mom, and overflowing plates of cookies. Tip then summed it up by saying, "It's the happiest day ever!"
I had to stop myself from snorting coffee out my nose.
I wanted to yell out, "Yeah RIGHT?!," and launch into an explanation, to my kids, of how far off base this picture of the holidays was. But as that feeling rose up in me, another feeling of guilt followed it, and I walked away. Why spoil Christmas with reality for my kids?
But it made me think about how far off from rosy we often feel about the holidays. So many of my clients, friends, and family struggle to find even a moment of peace in a time that everyone thinks should be filled with joy.
So what exactly is it about this time of year that doesn't work?
The way I see it, it's the perfect storm of two processes: expectation and obligation.
Expectation of what the holidays will be is a two-sided sword. On the one hand, we're taught from a very young age (like in the cartoon I watched) to see the holidays as a time of fulfillment, so we have positive expectations. This is the time when all of your dreams and wishes that you've done without all year will finally be realized in a grand fashion. It begins with toys - "I'll finally get the (insert hottest toy of your decade) I've been wanting all year." Over the life span we look for other forms of fulfillment.
Maybe you look forward to "Finally having all my family together and happy with one another," or maybe "My kids will see all the hard work I do for them," "Surely my parents will treat me with respect and love", or even "I know my husband finally show me he loves me and values me." All of these thoughts live just under the surface in our minds during the holidays, because we believe that this is a magical time when people are filled with love and joy and forget the issues of the other 364 days of the year.
Which is actually crazy, if you think about it.
The thing is this- we all have different positive expectations, so very often the feel-good experience you envision clashes with the fell-good experience someone else in your world wants. But we ALL expect to be happy.
And on the other side of the sword, we have negative expectations. So many of my friends tell me, "I struggle around the holidays, they're always hard for me."
This means they have had holidays past where they were left feeling empty of terrible, and that caused a nasty snag in the pantyhose of their emotional memory. So they try, as you do, to keep covering the snag with their skirt, but we all know that the struggle just makes it grow bigger. We expect to feel bad on the holidays, because we have before, and at a time when everyone is "supposed to be filled with joy", we feel defective because we aren't.
So you take the positive and negative expectations we all have, and throw those in with a jolly ol' heap of obligations. I asked a Jewish friend of mine if, in her opinion, she heard the same sense of 'let down' echoed in her group that I hear from my Christian friends around this time. She said no, and her reasoning surprised the stockings off of me.
"We don't have lights! And trees! And Santa! And Elf on the Shelf! And this and that! We have one little end cap in the store, and that's usually just Menorah candles!" What? Isn't that a bad thing? No.
What she meant was that the trappings of Christmas trap us.
The seasonal "shoulds" are soul-sucking for so many of us. If we don't get the tree up exactly so, if we don't decorate cookies like Pinterest shows us, if we don't have the picture-perfect cards, if we don't do family movie night in matching jammies- aren't we missing out on joy? We think that all of these things, and so many others, are ESSENTIAL to the Christmas experience and if they don't happen, we are letting others down and are somehow, again, defective. These things are not the path to happiness we tend to think they are.
So what can you do about all of this?
For one thing, how about not expecting or needing to be happy? If you aren't particularly joyful in your life the rest of the year, maybe it's unreasonable to expect yourself to be that way on a magical day. And maybe that's okay. Even on Christmas, it's okay to not be okay. And if someone else needs you to act happy, well, maybe that's their issue that they need to deal with, not yours.
And second, try to not expect. Just show up. Do what you feel moved to do, no more and no less, and just be present. If you find joy in something, even a small dumb thing, then great. It might not be all the things that "should" make you happy, and you might not need what you think you need to be happy. Removing the obstacles that keep you from being present and open, removing the expectations, will allow you your best chance at feeling connection, love, and peace.
Oh, and you can apply those two lessons to your entire year. So that's my gift to you. You're welcome.