Celebrating Christmas in a Season of Depression: a different point of view
23 December 2017
Growing up, I lived in a family that loved Christmas. It was a joyous time of year, full of parties, treats, laughing, singing, special Christmas celebrations at church, and special meals with family. It was not until years later that I realized how difficult the season may have been for a few of my family members who struggled with depression. I was too busy enjoying everything about Christmas to notice. Then I got married.
The first few years, Christmas was difficult to figure out as a married couple. I was shocked to learn that Handsome considered Christmas “just another day off from work.” I thought everybody wanted to make their house look like a Christmas village. I thought everyone wanted to go to parties, invite lots of guests for Christmas dinner, and have Christmas music on constant rotation while wearing Santa hats and dancing. And, by golly, it was Handsome’s job to make sure I had that kind of Christmas whether he liked it or not! It is the way Christmas was supposed to be celebrated. It was my favorite holiday. Why could he not just give me what I wanted?
I finally realized that if Handsome could celebrate Christmas the way I liked to, he gladly would. He loved me and would do anything for me, but struggling with depression and his introverted nature prevented him from doing so. I eventually realized that for him to celebrate Christmas in a way that was meaningful for him, it would have to look different than celebrating Christmas looked for me.
This led to the next few years when I went into a pattern of denying myself the things I enjoyed about Christmas. I tried to hide the tears as I felt the joy of Christmas draining from me. I loved the man! I wanted him to enjoy Christmas so I was determined to do it in a way I thought he would like. I did not go to parties, because Handsome did not want to go. Christmas music was what I heard only when I was in department stores. We did not have a Christmas tree because I did not think Handsome would want the giant one I wanted. We did not invite people over for Christmas meals and still Christmas was not a joy for either one of us. I was becoming irritable and secretly becoming resentful. However, one can only be a Christmas Martyr for so long before you get caught.
About 6 years into our marriage, I remember sitting on the couch and crying because we did not have a tree or any decorations up in the house. I was in full-on pity party mode. My only Christmas decoration that I had out was a 3 x 5 card sized nativity scene on my desk at work. Handsome happened to walk in on my pity party and did one of the things he does best--he sat down and listened to me pour out my heart. I am pretty sure I did not say things right. Ugly crying and telling him that he was ruining my Christmas probably was not the kindest or most truthful thing to say. However, the good thing was that night started a discussion that continues to this day. A discussion that allows us to each communicate more and enjoy Christmas together and individually.
We have been married 27 years, now. This has given me a few years to practice our way of celebrating Christmas. To say it has not been challenging would be a lie. Some years, depression has been more of a struggle for Handsome because let’s face it, life does not stop when the holidays roll around. Some years, I try to make Handsome do my version of Christmas and become resentful when he cannot meet my expectations. Some years, we get it just right. Thankfully, as time passes, we are having more of the “just right” Christmases. Also, I have learned to love some things about Handsome’s version of Christmas.
I have been considering putting what I have learned about celebrating Christmas into an article for a few years. This year, I knew it was time so I discussed it with Handsome and a few others who are walking this same journey. It was interesting to hear the similarities in what everyone shared as ideas for how they celebrate Christmas in situations similar to mine. Some were things Handsome and I already do and some were new ideas. I realized that the years that Handsome and I do Christmas “just right” and I feel that I have also had the chance to celebrate Christmas as fully as I would like, it usually involved my doing these 5 things.
1. Communication: Communicate ALL Christmas hopes and expectations to Handsome at an appropriate time and in an appropriate way. This means discussing everything from gift exchanging, stocking stuffing, and attending events. Together we create a plan. We also try to communicate through the holiday season. Each of us has a pace and way of approaching the holiday season so we are not overwhelmed. Being aware of what the other needs and helping to make space for them to do those things is great. When this happens, I remind myself that my pace and energy for the season does not have to parallel Handsome’s. It is okay if he stays home while I go Christmas shopping at the mall. The one exception is at events where Handsome has decided to attend with me. I try to stay aware of any ways he tries to communicate to me that it is becoming more than he can handle and kindly let the host know that it is time we leave. One of my friends says that they use a code word with their daughter so she can communicate this to them. I think that is a great idea.
2. Guests: Before inviting guests over to the house, especially for a party or dinner, discuss it in depth with Handsome to make sure he will be able to participate or is open to the idea if he will not be participating. If this will be too much, I change the location or activity to something that I can still enjoy with my friends. I refuse to force him to be okay with guests in his home when he needs a place to relax in a season that is already harder on him. I also let my guests know when they come to the house if Handsome will be joining us or not. If Handsome is going to be spending time in his office and only come out to say hello and grab a few snacks, I let them know. Because we live in a smaller home where sound travels, I let my guests know if there is a certain time we will need to be ending the night so Handsome can get his sleep. He wakes up super early for work and so he has an early bedtime. I know that the lack of sleep can make depression worse, so I try my best to make sure I am not hindering him in that way.
3. Shared seasonal things: Over the years, I have learned that there are some things about the Christmas season that Handsome enjoys and likes. I try to make sure I include them in the things I do, buy, or use in decorating for Christmas. For example, the year he caught me crying, we discussed how important to me a Christmas tree is for the season. Honestly, if I get nothing else at Christmas, I want a Christmas tree. When possible, I want it to be as large as it can be in both height and width. Handsome loves me, and even in those times when he his struggling with depression, he is not looking to deprive me of the things that I enjoy about Christmas. That is a false narrative I try to guard against allowing into my thoughts. As he put it, he does not want or expect a “shared cycle of doom and gloom.” He explained to me that one of the things he enjoys about the Christmas season is the smell of a real Christmas tree. He would rather pay for a real tree every year instead of having an artificial one. He even made one of my gifts that year a promise that he would get me a Christmas tree each year. I keep that in my stocking and redeem it yearly, but it also reminds me to find the little things of the season that we can enjoy together like eggnog, fireplaces, tinsel on the Christmas tree, a date night to see the new Star Wars movie...Nothing big and overwhelming. Simple and low-key is best.
4. Traditions: I try to remember that our Christmas traditions do not have to be like everyone else’s Christmas traditions. For Handsome, Christmas Eve night and Christmas Day are not times he wants to spend at someone else’s house. In order for him to relax and enjoy the true meaning of the holiday, he needs to be at home. So Christmas is pajama day at our house. We are not going to anyone’s Christmas meal though many kind people invite us. We thank them and tell them that our Christmas tradition is to spend the day at home enjoying each other’s company over something made with sausage, maybe watching a movie or playing a board game, reading, and relaxing. It is a no obligations day. I now look forward to this tradition. It serves as a pause for me to relish the holiday instead of filling it with activity. I have learned that it is important to me to have the traditions so I feel like I have had Christmas and for those traditions to be low-key so Handsome can enjoy Christmas. I have also learned that it is okay for me to have some traditions that are not the same as Handsome’s. For example, I enjoy going out to see Christmas lights. It is my personal tradition. Some years Handsome joins me in those excursions. Some years he does not and I take a friend. Still other years, I take my camera and go by myself. And this leads me to my last important idea.
5. Managing my expectations: I am learning to manage my expectations. At the beginning of the holiday season, I think through all the things I would like to do, see, or participate in that will make Christmas what I want and need it to be. Then I go through and determine which of these things are on my must do list. Most years, baking and decorating Christmas cookies, going to see Christmas lights, decorating a Christmas tree, preparing a special meal, attending a Christmas party, calling my family over the holidays make the list. Whatever I do participate in, I try to cherish it and spend some time thinking of all that was enjoyable about it. Handsome is welcome to join me in any of these things, but even if he does not, I will still do them. I let him know he will be missed, I go to the event or activity, enjoy myself, and if possible, bring him home a little goodie from the event. I have learned that it is not Handsome’s job to make my Christmas special. My Christmas is special because it is when I remember the amazing story of how God became “God with Us” in the birth of Jesus Christ so I can live a redeemed life. Handsome is an added blessing. To expect more from him than that, not only strains our marriage, but places an impossible expectation on him.
Those are the 5 key things I try to focus on doing each Christmas season as Handsome and I attempt each year to have a “just right” Christmas. How about you? Are you someone who is not struggling with depression, but lives with someone who is? I would love to hear some of the ways you have found to make the Christmas holidays great. Just leave a note in the comment section below. And please, share this on your social media feeds. Maybe it will help someone else have a great holiday season, too.
Addendum: This is from my point of view as the person who is not depressed and what I can do to make sure Christmas is what I need it to be. Please note that Handsome does many things to make sure I have an amazing Christmas. If Handsome decides to write a list from his point of view, I will make sure I share the link to it. Either way, no husband bashing please.