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How Merry Do I Need to be This Christmas?

A table of friends gathered around the Christmas dinner table. Even surrounded by friends, holiday blues can be difficult to navigate during the holiday season.

The holidays tend to be glorified as a time of year when all is well. The lights twinkle on the tree, snow gently falls outside, and the kitchen smells of hot soups and baked goods. We spend our nights curled up on the couch, hot cocoa in hand, watching old Christmas movies, and basking in the holiday glow. 

But how accurate is this image? I know for me, and probably for most of us, the holiday season brings challenges as well as cheer. It takes work to put on a smile and get in the Christmas spirit sometimes. The truth is that St. Nick makes jolly look easier than it is for most of us in reality.

Home is a big part of what makes Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year.” So when home doesn’t feel like home because it’s been a tough year or because you can’t be with your family, that can add another level of stress to the holidays.

Spending Christmas in a new home

Consider the work it takes to get into a merry mood when you’re approaching your first Christmas living in a new city. This is the situation a friend of mine found herself in when her dad started a new job across the country from their home. She decided to make the move with her family, but some of her siblings stayed put due to jobs and school. So not only was she living in a new place, but, for the first time in a while, her family was separated for the holidays. Unsurprisingly, she shared that it didn’t feel like Christmas at all.

Home — whether it’s a physical place or a feeling of belonging — plays a key role in the holiday season. And if that’s missing, some of our joy is, too. Fortunately, despite feeling more than a little heartsick, my friend was able to find, if not merriment, a calm joy on Christmas day. For her, it came in remembering what lay at the heart of the season, and not even a new home or distance from family could change that.

Sometimes home doesn’t feel like home

I vividly remember my own struggles with merriment during the Christmas season.

As I approached winter break during my third year at college, I couldn’t have been more excited to get home. After drowning in papers and exams, there was nothing I wanted more than to be with my family. 

Instead of finding the relief I had been anticipating, I encountered unsettling disappointment. Coming from a big family, I’m used to a loud, busy house, but for the first time since leaving for school, I couldn’t find my place in the craziness. I felt disconnected from my family and the lives they had continued to live without me. This realization stole from me the very joy I had been anticipating since turning in my final paper. It shut me down. Rather than spending time with my family, for those few days after I got back, I kept to myself, stayed in bed, and gave in to the sadness and anxious feelings.

As the days passed, and my family continued to bustle around me, I came to terms with the root of my unhappiness: my family had continued with their lives, and I had to do the same. I felt displaced because “home” had become more than one place for me. It stretched beyond my parents’ house to my college campus and the communities I had formed there. 

It wasn’t exactly a Christmas epiphany, but it soothed the anxious feelings that had taken hold of me and allowed me to enjoy the weeks I had with my family. The irony is that it was in my sadness that I found a reason to celebrate. 

The secret to finding joy at Christmas

Merriment and joy don’t come simultaneously with the falling of the first snow, and placing expectations on ourselves to feel happy does more harm than good (trust me). A shift in focus is needed — rather than being consumed by how merry we should be on Christmas, our focus should be on where our joy comes from in the first place. 

What’s the cause of our joy at Christmas time? Once we remove the stress of how much and what and when, we leave room to just focus on the why

When we find our source of joy, we find our reason to hang on through the difficult times and appreciate the season for what it is — a celebration of love that is with us no matter where we are.

A table of friends gathered around the Christmas dinner table. Even surrounded by friends, holiday blues can be difficult to navigate during the holiday season.

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