Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Christmas Depression

It comes as no surprise to perceptive people that Christmas is not a happy season for everyone. I cannot remember a Christmas in the 60 years I've been a minister in which someone did not confidentially say to me: "I hate Christmas. I wish it was over." When I was an active minister, I reserved as much time as possible in December for talking and visiting with people who suffered ‘Christmas blues'. People who hate Christmas nearly always feel guilty for feeling like that even though it is obvious their feelings do not arise from rejection of the real meaning of the season.

After the death of a loved one, the first time a holiday, anniversary, birthday or any other significant event comes around, sadness accompanies it. People who have experienced a death in the family, or a divorce (which is like a death), usually find the first Christmas without their spouse or dear one to be one of almost unbearable sadness. And such sadness or depression is not limited to that first Christmas alone, the holidays can trigger feelings of loss for years.

Books do not resolve problems, but there are some books about loss and grief that can help us get through the season. Let me mention two. Before her death in August of 2004, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her colleague and friend, David Kessler, wrote two very helpful books, both of which can be read with great benefit by those who have experienced loss and those who will experience loss, which includes everybody. The books are entitled Life Lessons and On Grief and Grieving.

More complicated than seasonal grief after death and divorce is Christmas blues of people who have no identifiable or socially acceptable reason for their feelings. They suffer silently, or attribute their feelings to something other than the real reason. There is often something very non-specific about Christmas blues.

One person said: "At Christmas something in you gets so lonely for - I don't know what exactly, but it is something you don't mind so much not having at other times."

Until recently Christmas depression and other negative Christmas feelings were ‘closet' problems. Seldom would anyone openly admit they hated to see the season come or that they always got depressed, or drank too much, or felt cheated by a season that promised so much and gave so little.

I am not sure who ‘blew the cover' on this great American embarrassment. But now that you know there are other people who feel this way, perhaps you can face up to your own feeling with more courage and less shame - and sham.

Children in our culture get a heavy dose of unrealistic magical wonder and expectation about Christmas, which is encouraged and reinforced by the commercial establishment. From the earliest age children are the recipients of ‘free' gifts from a magical character from the North Pole who not only knows exactly where they live and what they want, but who strangely knows exactly what size they wear and who is able to deliver the goods to every kid in the world between 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 5:30 a.m. on Christmas Day.

One of the earliest grief/loss experiences of a child is the death of the Santa Claus myth. Some children know the truth long before they admit it, and even then the blow is softened by the fact that the free gifts keep coming even though the magic is gone.

Since we are taught at such a young age that Christmas is a very happy time of magic and wonder unaccompanied by conflict, bills, and responsibility, unconsciously we still expect Christmas to be like that. Christmas is disappointing and depressing to many grownups because it does not live up to unconscious childhood expectations. The fact that we are adults does not lessen our disappointment; it only makes it more difficult to express.

Christmas often causes conflicts because when families get together, feelings are intense, and people are more sensitive than usual. Many family fights break out at Christmas. People are together who have not been together for a long time, and they have changed from how you remember them.

They are not ‘themselves', as we remember them. We are each displaced from our daily routine. All in all, it creates a perfect climate for people to be nervous, irritable, and generally fractious.

What can we do to get ourselves in tune with the reason for the season and put more joy into Christmas? What can we do to minimize conflict, sadness and our own unrealistic, childish expectations? We all know enough to create our own set of solutions. Why don't you work on that? You really do not need advice as much as you need to exercize intentional effort.

Start early!