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How to Get Through the Holidays When You’re Not in the Mood

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 five 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.


  • 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 two years ago)
  • 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
  • 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. —Lacie
  • 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. —Chickenpig
  • 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. —Persnickity
  • 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. —Cautious Optimist

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


1 Katherine A { 11.25.13 at 9:26 am }

Thanks so much for this list! So much good advice here!

For me, prioritization is definitely the key to getting through the holidays. Even before infertility, I’ve always been an introvert, and it can feel pretty overwhelming to be around people so much – even people I genuinely like. I try to go through my list of holiday stuff/events and figure out which things are high priority. Then I try to go to those and not worry about the rest of it too much.

I also have found that communication is a huge key to a good holiday season. My husband is an extrovert and would happily attend everything and stay forever – it’s just his personality, he loves being social. After awhile, I started making sure that before we left for a party or event that both of us were clear on how late we intended to stay. Don’t get me wrong, if we were both having a good time, that was flexible. But if I was ready to go home, we had a clearly agreed upon time. Knowing that it wasn’t going to last forever and having some sort of agreement in place about when we would leave helped me a lot. It also helped my husband, since he knew he’d get to socialize for that full time unless there was an emergency.

2 chickenpig { 11.25.13 at 2:26 pm }

I got a good chuckle over the list just now. Today I was feeling blue, so after I was done running some errands I dropped into TJ Maxx to see if I could find a small something. Sure enough, I latched onto a beautiful set of painted glass ornaments that brightened my day. I think I’m going to need more than one tree this year 🙂

3 Mali { 11.25.13 at 10:25 pm }

This is such a valuable service you provide, Mel. I have to say that Christmas/Holidays no longer scare me. Maybe the people who are coming scare me, but that’s a personality thing, and nothing to do with my no kids status. (Though I will admit that I do grumble a bit at having to buy presents for all the nieces and nephews, and yet rarely get a thank you or acknowledgement from them or their parents).

I’m 12 years on from my first Christmas ectopic, 10 years almost since my first Christmas when I knew I’d never have children. And those first Christmases were difficult – I ran away to Europe (for the novelty of a winter Christmas – though sadly not a white one) to escape a new baby in the family one year, and we organised an adults only Christmas that first Christmas, which helped. But it gets easier every year, and this year I’m looking forward to having a bunch of nieces and nephews visiting and in the house on Christmas Day. (Yes, I’m hosting).

And that’s the main advice I can give now. That it really does get better. No matter what.

4 Rachel Lewis { 11.26.13 at 1:39 am }

Our first loss due to Ectopic pregnancy happened 5 days before Christmas. I bought a pair of newborn baby shoes , tied a ribbon through them, and hung them On our tree. It was a reminder that a little baby was supposed to here with us, and her little shoes would never be filled by another.

Last year, we had a miscarriage, so I added a pair of boy’s newborn shoes. This May, we had another miscarriage, so on my list of holiday shopping is to get a pair of baby shoes to add to the tree.

I also decided to hang the shoes in our room as decor on the wall along with family pictures. It’s comforting to know they will not be forgotten, at least not by me.

5 Kimberly { 11.26.13 at 1:58 am }

Each year, I forget about this list until you post it again, then I get excited about it.

My big thing is tackling what I can and being ok with whatever happens (or doesn’t). I’m lucky enough to have some amazing friends who know and support our struggle. Friends who know by a look if I’ve hit my limit. It makes it easy to find a quick out if I need it. It makes holiday parties much easier, so much so that I’m walking into it comfortable and barely use them, or the quick exits, anymore.

But in cases where they aren’t there to “cover” for me, I just take it day by day. If I find myself unable to do something, I simply back out. I don’t let myself feel bad about it. I don’t let it weigh on my mind.

And if I really have to be at an event and I don’t want to be there, I keep to the outskirts of the group and nurse a drink. If I ever find myself needing an out, a quick SOS text to a friend and a call from them with a sudden “emergency” gives me that out if I’m desperate.

6 deathstar { 11.26.13 at 2:37 am }

Start a new tradition. One new recipe (despite people’s insistence on the same food year after year), a themed gift to give people (think goofy fuzzy socks or imported candy), a trip instead of gifts, movie marathons, men cook something for a change (make it a dare, or bet money on who makes the best stuffing), things like that. I myself like themed cocktails. Candy crush martini anyone?

7 Pepper { 11.27.13 at 4:26 am }

Thank you. My solution to the holidays when we first got our diagnosis was to throw myself into them. I decorated, I sewed (er, hot glued), I baked. And it helped.

I also have to say thank you for this list. We have our beautiful daughter now so there is a lot of joy in this holiday season, as there has been for the past 2. And now we are enduring the process of adoption and just this week we have had two near misses, two almost-our-babies that slipped away. I know they were not meant to be ours. But until now, when people asked, I could just say, “Nothing new, we’re waiting for an expectant family to choose us.” And I will still say that, but in my heart, I will be thinking of those two almost-our-babies.

8 Constant { 11.27.13 at 11:38 pm }

I LOVE the idea of writing a little note to myself (or having my husband write one to me). This is great … one I will certainly use not just for the holidays, but for tough times in general! Thanks Mel!

9 loribeth { 12.02.13 at 8:59 pm }

What a lot of great accumulated wisdom here. 🙂 Like Mali, I am several years down the road, post loss & infertility. And while I still get misty eyed putting Katie’s ornaments on the tree, and have a hard time hearing “Away in a Manger” at Christmas Eve service, I’m glad to say it doesn’t hurt anywhere nearly as bad as it once did.

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