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How to Get Through the Holidays When You Don’t Feel Like Celebrating


I’ve written a post like this every year, bringing together all the advice from the years before (my own and what appeared in the comment section) and then opening it up to additional ideas (which will be brought next year into the new post as well). Because this time of year can be both impossibly difficult or impossibly wonderful depending on which side of the happiness line you fall, and I say that even as a non-Christian who doesn’t need to do anything more than participate in a volunteer project and eat a bunch of candy canes on Christmas.

Holidays are a lot of pressure — to get them right, to coordinate schedules/needs/wants, to navigate relationships, to travel. For some people those pressures are additionally pressed down by the knowledge of people missing from the table — either those who were once here or those who haven’t been brought into your family yet. And compounding it all is this ongoing message that holidays must be fun! They must be a happy time! Families must draw together and eat a spiral ham in front of a roaring fire with a sparkling tree in the background!

Even if they’re out of work.  Even if they don’t have the family they want.  Even if they’re in mourning.

For people who are happily moving through the holiday season, especially those finally celebrating after many dry years, I lift my virtual glass of champagne to you and send you off to enjoy it. Don’t apologize for being happy — just soak in this time.

For anyone else still sticking around to read this, remember that everyone experiences something in life that makes a particular year or set of years difficult for them. That for every holiday season that you enjoy and look forward to participating in, there is also a time in life where you dread all the reminders that come with a holiday season and wish you could avoid the whole thing. And this year may be that time for you, but it won’t always be that time for you. Things change; both for good and bad. This too shall pass.

You can sit out of the festivities if that’s what you need to do, but a survival guide is sort of like holding your breath to eat (you know, so you don’t taste anything) when your mother asks you to try lima beans. Like slimey green lima beans, going to events is usually good for you, and it’s important to be around people who care about you when the going is tough. You just may need a trick for getting through family time just as mouth-breathing (and not tasting) works for choking down undesired foods.

I’ll offer up the same advice I gave the last year four years with additional notes from comments that came on those old posts:

  • Create your own incentives and treat getting through the holiday season as your job. Pay yourself in whatever will make you happy. For instance, after a trip to the local mall to have your picture taken with your niece and Santa, pay yourself with a manicure. Attending the holiday party from hell may win you an entire bar of chocolate. It’s worth setting up small incentives and budgeting for your own happiness because it can be something to focus on during the task at hand.
  • You know the idea that you can take a large school and make it small but you can’t go the other way around? Flip that concept when it comes to the holidays: take a small part of the holiday and make it big. Focus on something that you can do and make it your contribution to the holiday season. If you know celebrating Christmas will be too much, make sure you throw yourself wholeheartedly into helping prepare Thanksgiving (and then develop an unfortunate case of the stomach flu on December 24th). If you can organize the family gift but can’t fathom how you’ll do Christmas dinner, make sure you send out an email to your siblings early asking for photos of your nieces and nephews so you can design a great picture calendar for your parents. And then skip the ham.
  • Do all your shopping online instead of subjecting yourself to walking past the displays of toys and Christmas baby clothes at the store. Keep it simple this year – you have a lifetime to plot out the most fantastic gifts of all time. This may be the year that you need to buy a DVD or book for each person your list and be done.
  • Leave a note in your pocket: write a note to yourself, ask a friend to jot something down, trade letters with your partner, or simply leave a list of names (therapist, fellow bloggers, the friend you’ll drink with the moment you get home) in your pocket to touch as a reminder that someone has your back when you begin to feel overwhelmed at the holiday table. I can’t be with you at your Christmas dinner (the whole Jew and vegetarian thing aside, I just don’t think your family is going to be cool if you drag along a random blogger), but I can give you a note right now to keep in your pocket. Simply print this out and whenever you get overwhelmed, touch it and remember that there are people out there who get you. And change the line about mini hot dogs if you’re a vegetarian:

Hey Sweetie:

I know it was really hard to come to this party/dinner/get together but now that you’re here, you’re even closer to it being over. Try to enjoy yourself, but if you can’t, nip into the bathroom for a cry or bury yourself at the buffet table and do nothing but eat mini hot dogs for the rest of the night. There is no shame in enduring rather than enjoying and you need to do whatever you need to do to get through this without ruining any relationships. Make sure you take time for yourself today/tonight after you get home. I’m here on the other end of the computer if you need me.

Love,
Mel

  • Pick and Choose: there is no rule that says you must attend every event during the holiday season – even if you’ve gone to everything in the past. If it’s going to cause more grief than it’s worth, just attend the event. But if you can get your partner to “surprise” you with a holiday trip, all the better.
  • Book: I actually include a lot of ideas like these in Navigating the Land of If to get through life in general; not just holiday. I’m just saying.
  • I will tell you the only trick I have up my sleeve: the holiday card. Most holiday cards we receive are either generic package-of-12 types or pictures of kids/families. We send out cards every year that routinely get responses that it was the best card they’ve gotten all year, or sometimes the best card ever. Sometimes one fabulous photo of us in some fabulous locale; sometimes a whole series around the world (which it will have to be again this year). We used to just have a normal photo card, but now we include a newsy update of career progress and travels. The people with kids (or limited funds, or limited outlook) say, “Wow, your life is amazing. I’m stuck here at home.” I’m not trying to make them feel envious of us, but envy is way better than pity. –Baby Smiling in Back Seat
  • All of our friends have been sending photo X-mas cards in the past years. In previous years, we’d send an awesome vacation photo. Like- heh!- we still had fun this year! –Mrs. Spock
  • One tip I figured out early on: If you can’t shop online & have to go to the mall, find out what hours Santa will be there — & then go when he’s not around. There won’t be as many kids & babies around to deal with then. –The Road Less Travelled
  • I manage to work in a reference to Katie in every edition of our Christmas letter … usually in relation to our volunteer work. But I like being able to remind people that she was real & is still a part of our lives. My Christmas card itself usually has either an angel or Classic Pooh theme (which was also the theme of her nursery). I know other people who use angel stamps on their cards as a subtle reminder of their lost baby(s). –The Road Less Travelled
  • This year I solved my problem in the cowardly fashion … I offered to work. I work at a domestic violence shelter, which is open 24/7 … So I figure I might as well. I can get paid double time as well, so it’s all sorts of awesome. –An Unwanted Path
  • I started listening to holiday music in August this year. I’m using it as my own private technique for connecting with the joy of the season early enough that I won’t suddenly get trampled in the crush of child-centric images, events, and conversations coming my way during the actual season. I want this year to be different! –Lisa
  • Instead of focusing on what I can’t handle, I’m heading into the season excited about the possibilities of the new traditions TH and I will make this year. I’m just going to roll with the punches. If I’m really excited about putting up the tree, we’re going to do it and not wait. If I can’t handle being around our nephew, TH can go and I can stay home. I’m not going to force myself into any situation, and I’m just going to accept where I am and be there. –Kim
  • I just bought three bottles of my favorite wine yesterday to take to my mom’s… and I don’t plan to share any of it. –Guera!
  • I think I’m going to plan something for just me and my husband so we’ve got an event during the holiday season to look forward to. It’s either going to be going out to a really nice restaurant or going on a trip (or possibly both!). –Sushigirl
  • I’m a big fan of lights. Lights inside and out of the house. But putting up the tree where cute handmade kid ornaments should be was always too hard. So I just put up lights – it goes back to finding out what you can do to enjoy the season and doing it. –BigPandMe
  • Two years ago at Christmas right after my 3rd miscarriage I was in a really bad place and dreading the holidays. My mom suggested that instead of our normal Christmas Eve meal we make homemade Chinese food – egg rolls, stir fry, etc. It turned out great and for whatever reason not having to face the traditional meal made it so much better. Don’t get me wrong – it was still really hard – but I got through it and was happy that I spent time with my family instead of avoiding the whole holiday. –Becky
  • And “work” can also mean volunteer work. Nobody is going to get mad at you for selflessly devoting your time and skills at a soup kitchen instead of sitting around the family table (or for rushing from the family table to do said work). Or they might, but they’ll end up looking like the bad guy, not you. –Bea
  • Remember it’s just a day. It has no power. You don’t have to enjoy it. Lots of people don’t. –Mali
  • Sometimes things suck, and sometimes, you have to feel what you’re going to feel while things suck. It’s okay to mourn and it’s okay to cry and it’s okay to not pull yourself up by the bootstraps based on someone else’s timetable rather than your own. And that sometimes, when you push yourself to do something, you find that you actually derived a great deal of peace from the experience. Such as sitting down at the Thanksgiving table when you’re sort of dreading being around people. –Me (from last year)
  • By refusing to stay over, so that I know we can go home when we’ve had enough. Oh sorry, we’ve got the cat to feed, we can’t possibly stay longer… –Rebecca
  • As someone who had (is having) a happy IF ending that resulted in children, I find myself very aware of the depression of holidays past. So this year, I’m doing two Christmas cards: one for family and other friends who experienced a happy IF ending, and one for those who are still waiting with empty arms. The first will, of course, include a picture of our family and children and all the enjoyment of the past year. The second will be less “kids in your face” and more “Happy Holidays, we love you.” I remember how much it stung to get Christmas cards in the mail of new babies and young families that I wanted so badly for myself. I just can’t do it to my friends how I KNOW are enduring the same heartache. –Amy
  • Lots of wine and a sober husband to get me home. When everyone is so busy doting on kids or passing around gifts, its easy to just be in the room, but just off to the corner, on the outskirts, enjoying drink after drink. And I also let hubby tackle the “so when are you guys gonna have kids” questions. –Kimberly
  • We’ll have a big breakfast, then go out for a real long walk (10 miles), then we’ll come back and cook a sumptious dinner for the two of us, then in the evening, we’ll head out to the in laws when the children will be in bed and we can just stay an hour or so before being tired and heading home for our beds. –Flowergirl

How do you get through the holiday season when you’re feeling less than your best?

16 comments

1 Alicia { 11.14.12 at 8:04 am }

This is awesome – just what I needed!

2 Lacie { 11.14.12 at 8:13 am }

Wow, Mel. The advice about tucking into the bathroom for a cry brought tears. I’ve had more of those times than I care to remember. I am so happy to be on the other side and quietly crying as I remember. I am so sorry that so many are still in the throes of that nightmare. I wish I could hug each and every person in that bathroom and tell her that some how, some way, it’s going to be okay. I would tell her that I know this because she is good and she is strong. I’d tell her that I don’t know what her happy ending will be but that it will be ok because she is fabulous and that this is just a season in her life. Then I’d hug her again and and cry with her because this shit is not even close to fair. I’d tell her that even though some of us have happy endings with children, the hurt will always be there. It’s no longer the raw, open wound that it once was, but it is a part of the fabulous me that I choose to be. Then, I’d encourage her to down some of the wine I’d tucked under my arm and wipe her tears. We’d laugh at some stupid joke I made to lighten the mood and then we’d face the music together, hand in hand (after we fix our running eyeliner and snotty noses). I’d say a prayer that she’d feel a little less alone, even if only for a few moments.

Ahem. Where was I? Oh yes, my advice!
My husband and I started a tradition a few years ago that we cherish. We each spend the holiday season in search of the perfect tree ornament for the other. We decorate with the old looking blown glass ornaments and we try to find something that really represents the other person. My hubby’s have been a motorcycle, an old school looking robot, a space taser gun, Santa serving up beers, among a few others. This gave us something to focus on other than what was missing. That is not to say that I still didn’t bawl and blow snot into the carpet every time I finished decorating the tree. I did, and mostly likely still will. But it reminds us that we are special and that it doesn’t have to be all about kids. We were worth it. When we tell others about this tradition and how we exchange our ornaments on Christmas Eve and place them on the tree, others seem to think that it’s pretty awesome. So, I say, do something that will help you be more connected with someone you love. You will still be sad that it is not the baby that you are missing but you will also be letting someone else know that they are special and be reminded that you are worth it to someone else.

3 Chickenpig { 11.14.12 at 9:29 am }

Your note made me cry. Forget the holidays, I’m printing out this note to carry around with me everywhere. Thank You, Mel, thank you sooooo much.

You are welcome at my Christmas dinner anytime. Both of my aunts are married to Jewish men, so are festivities are totally inclusive. I’ll make sure there are plenty of vegetarian munchies for you :)

I have to stop crying now before my daughter comes in here because I’m being too quiet.

4 Chickenpig { 11.14.12 at 9:40 am }

I have tons of advice on the survival front. Last year it pretty much boiled down to drinking everything in sight and having my husband drive. Because this is the first year I’ve worked in almost 7 years I have money to spend (YEAH!!) that is MY money. I am chasing the holiday blues by buying people the nicest, coolest gifts that I can. And I’m spoiling my kids ASSES off. I may even buy myself something. What I don’t want is the miscarriage I had last year two days before Christmas to spoil Christmas time forever.

My best advice is always to make the holidays as nice as you can for yourself. I love getting the Christmas tree and decorating, so I have been buying ornaments and looking at holiday decorating ideas. It has always been a happy part about Christmas, with or without children, whether or not I’ve been in a relationship, so it is the thing I can hang on to. That and Mel’s letter ;) (I bought myself a real tree when I was in High School because I had never had one, and bought my own ornaments, I still have a few of them. I will put a tree in every room of this house if I have to!)

5 Corey Feldman { 11.14.12 at 10:33 am }

Up my anti anxiety meds

6 Tiara { 11.14.12 at 1:47 pm }

I thought the same thing as Chickenpig about your note! So precious.

7 Christa Singleton { 11.14.12 at 4:40 pm }

What wonderful advice! This year is going to be rough for me because we were just matched with a birthmom who is due on December 29th. So this is either going to be the best holiday season EVER (if we become parents) or the worst holiday season ever (if she changes her mind and decides to parent). But all we can do is go along for the ride and hope for the best!

8 Wolfers { 11.14.12 at 8:38 pm }

Thanks so much for the post…. much much appreciated…this will be my first holiday to deal with, after having the surgery (unwilling)…. I’m SO even tempted to go on a road trip somewhere away from everything.

9 persnickety { 11.15.12 at 12:12 am }

We went away last year- obviously it does depend on family and finance situations though. We ended up in Japan for two weeks (because it was cheaper to do that then have 5 days away here in Australia) which was a lot of fun (we have both been there before). Spending the holidays where the celebration is so different from what you are used to also really helped- yes there were lots of christmas decorations around, and small children, but there were no Santa photo stands, and the christmas stuff tends to have a “romantic” air rather than a family one. The family holiday is New Years and much of the significance of that was not relevant to us. A very enjoyable holiday, although not one I can repeat this year.
This year, we are spending it with the in-laws, so the coping strategy is the oh so healthy case of wine I plan to take with us and the beach, which is about 15 minutes walk from my parents-in-law.

10 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.15.12 at 12:16 am }

I like Mali’s advice.

And everything in Land of IF.

11 Kimberly { 11.15.12 at 1:57 am }

Thank you for this. I’ve had a rough go of it lately and the anxieties that come with the season were just starting to surface on top of everything else but they are now, thankfully, tame and back in place. Of course after a bit of a cry, but it was good tears…for once. <3

And you would always be welcome at my holiday dinner table. I'd even make you your favorite dishes.

12 talesofacautiousoptimist { 11.15.12 at 5:57 am }

I would say to just take care of yourself. You know what you need to help yourself so do what makes you feel good and not what others expect you to do. This year, B and I will be in the TWW of our 2nd IVF cycle. We have been through a lot this year, especially lately, so we decided not to spend Thanksgiving with family. We told both sides of the family that we are just staying home this year. We will be making our own little turkey dinner with boxed stuffing and some sort of vegetable (so the pressure of cooking something fancy is off as well) and allowing ourselves to just be. I will not have to answer questions about why I’m not drinking or when we plan to have kids. We will probably get a tree over the weekend and decorate it as we both love to do that! As for Christmas celebrations, we haven’t decided yet. We will make a decision closer to the holiday depending on how we feel. And we told family exactly that…we will let you know our plans once we’ve decided.

13 Geochick { 11.15.12 at 11:22 am }

It’s the holiday season already? Sheesh, where have I been? Joking aside, all this advice is amazing. I love the note, and I second everyone’s ideas.

Personally, for us, we did a lot of grit our teeth to get through the season. Lots of wine, lots of skiing. It’s easier now on the other side (and with therapy).

14 Ashley { 11.15.12 at 6:40 pm }

Ahhhh, pecan pie! My Achilles heel – where is the recipe for that bad boy? I must have tried over 50 recipes but still haven’t made the perfect pie yet.

15 Anna { 11.16.12 at 5:36 pm }

A few years ago, that note meant so much to me. I remember crying over this post a couple of times. Thanks for putting it together. Though, this time around, I’m not in that place it’s important for me to remember it.

At that time all that my husband and I did was withdraw from events that were avoidable, stay at home together, eat any kind of food and watch/listen to anything we liked (blocking out everything that we could). We paid lip-service with a couple of small decorations but really we just leant in to one another and treated Christmas as any day off work.

16 Sasha { 12.09.14 at 12:54 am }

Mel, thank you for this place you created on web. Way too many people struggle this season, even taking med(not me though) and yet, there is no place to go to! Lots of people go to church on Christmas, they encourage people to be thankful and to find anything, anything at all to be thankful. That might be true but people’s heart is not that easy and simple. Especially female like myself, need to talk it out, haha.
I don’t have any issue with my in-laws nor my original family at least and yet why do I get anxiety? Why do I feel terrible but the true me say I hate this season? I live with a person who does not have any plans nor budget, absolutely nothing, getting us to the busiest places(like mall) so that he can FEEL Christmas and at the same time, he through filthy words to whoever comes on his way or make him wait. No plans, extreme spontaneous, period. Spending for what ever literally he sees or children see and buy them for the presents. He would have done it once, that he used the grocery money to buy what ever for his family for Christmas only because he never plans. Are children happy? Absolutely not. They never been taught to really appreciate gifts because one of their parent who has income buys everything they want. You should see their faces on Christmas morning AFTER they open their presents! It’s sad! Like…..” I want more ” or ” is this it ?” look. Never like this when I married him. Totally the opposite on everything value wise. Oh, by the way, even though we are together like in a mall, I do not exist. Mom carries everything(I tell them straight and I do NOT carry things but they expect), mom don’t need to use bathroom, mom don’t get hungry nor tired……. Therefore, he would NEVER even pay any attention to any kind of store or shop that I am interested which is most women to even consider what possibility would I like to have for Christmas since everyone is getting something. No wonder he never learns my interests for 20 years. He buys me exactly the same flower(yes, same color, same flower), the same chocolate and that is it! Sure some wives never receive anything like this would say “at least he is romantic” but being romantic for what? He buys the same exact same stuff for years, he can buy them blindfold, lol! Flowers and chocolate without heart. Wow, so romantic!! I am not a hard female to please. Anything with nice smell like candles, foo-foo, bag, purse, shoes, watch, typical! Baking stuff, decorations. Easy! (for a gift that is) So! I buy it for myself, not spending much(I am a planner!) this is a special time, but he becomes such penny pincher when I do that. My point is I don’t mind this season if there is no gifts involved. We got everything we need for Pete’s sake! But exchange gifts is part of it for the season and I do get excited when we give gifts outside my own family.

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