“The jingle bells are jingling. The streets are white with snow. The happy crowds are mingling, but there’s no one that I know. I’m sure that you’ll forgive me if I don’t enthuse. I guess I’ve got the Christmas blues.” (Dean Martin)
I imagine that’s how Mary and Joseph felt as they walked down the streets of Bethlehem, trying to find a safe place to welcome their child on the first Christmas. Unfortunately, things were so bad for this young family that the only place they could find was a barn and a feeding trough for the birth of Emmanuel (Luke 2:7). Things were indeed blue in Bethlehem that night. Now, you will notice some similarities between what Drew did last week and what I am doing today. I may have caught the Christmas blues from him! Either way, the remedy is the same: clergy, counselors, and other mental health professionals can help change our tune.
While most of us identify the Christmas season with beautifully stylized, joyful images that rival Norman Rockwell’s best, the truth is that many people experience deep-seated sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, and depression during this time. Economic stressors, missing loved ones, feelings of alienation, and much more are everyday dynamics for people who experience the “Christmas blues.” It seems that some of these dynamics were factoring in the emotional state of these newlyweds forced to travel to a distant land during the impending birth of this child under the incipient noise of their town’s rumor mill.
So, instead of a joyous celebration filled with family gatherings, delectable foods, cherished traditions, and beautifully wrapped gifts under the tree, some experience the Advent season with a sense of gloom and despair. This contrasts the “light of the world” heralded in John 8:12 and the shining “great light for those who live in a land of deep darkness” foretold by Isaiah 9:2.
Underlying Causes of the Christmas Blues
Perhaps you have noticed it too: the Christmas shopping season starts earlier every year. We all know that Christmas comes with a definite focus on consumerism. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, last-minute shopping, and other spending-focused events are ingrained in our collective minds. Unfortunately, these factors can cause undue financial and emotional stress. Beyond everyday financial obligations, the pressure of gift-buying, parties, traveling, and family traditions can increase stress and anxiety to unhealthy levels. British psychotherapist Rachel Mathews explains that the pressure exerted by the expectations for the perfect Christmas celebration is enormous and can be the proximate cause of increased financial stress. Like in Luke’s original Christmas morn, we contend with travel budgets, canceled Airbnb reservations, and last-minute shopping. No wonder many are singing the Christmas blues instead of focusing on the light of the Christmas child.
One of my favorite Christmas movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The chronicles of the Griswold family Christmas celebrations are hilarious because they illustrate how dysfunctional family relationships can affect emotional well-being. There is a little bit of everything: Clark’s borderline obsession with decorations, complicated family interactions, difficult neighbors like Todd and Margo, wet carpets, flying squirrels, disappointing Jelly of the Month Club bonuses, and Cousin Eddie. Of course, we laugh at these irreverent shenanigans, but they paint an accurate albeit exaggerated reality of family dynamics. Dealing with family dysfunction, addiction, abuse, estrangement, and other issues will likely cause additional emotional burdens, increasing the likelihood of isolation and depression during the Christmas season.
Loneliness can be a certain determinant of the Christmas blues. Whether we are avoiding uncomfortable interactions or dreading Christmas without loved departed ones, loneliness can lead to social isolation. The timely or untimely departure of loving parents, siblings, family members, and friends can make this season unbearable. This dynamic is especially devastating for adults 65 and older and those unable to be with loved ones.
- The UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness offers practical advice to understand and reduce the impact of loneliness during Christmas.
- Psychologist and professor David Wang unpacks the problem of dealing with grief during Christmas.
- Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center offers resources to deal with stress, pressures, and complicated family interactions during Christmas.
- Journalist Olga Khazan addresses loneliness in a conversation with psychologist John Cacioppo.
Facing The Christmas Blues
Maybe you are thinking that in a world of Cindy-Lou Whos you just feel like the Grinch. But things can change. Last week Drew highlighted how mental health is more than wishful thinking and a prayer. In fact, dealing effectively with the Christmas blues requires proactive steps.
First, you must acknowledge your feelings. If you are feeling the weight of financial pressure, the stress of dealing with complicated family interactions, or the sadness and grief of losing a loved one, remember that it’s OK to cry and express your feelings. Even when some people think you can force yourself to be happy for Christmas, we all know it doesn’t work that way.
Second, reach out. This idea may sound counterintuitive, but if you feel lonely or stressed out, talk to a friend, find a support group, sit down with your pastor, or volunteer some of your time to help others.
Third, if you think you need it, find professional help. For example, if you are fighting depression, deep-seated loneliness, anxiety, and hopelessness, talk to a doctor or a mental health professional.
Other tips for dealing with the Christmas blues include making realistic expectations for the holiday season, setting realistic goals for yourself, not taking on responsibilities you can’t handle, prioritizing essential activities, and learning when to say no.
I may be taking too many interpretative liberties with the biblical narrative. Still, while Mary and Joseph were grateful for the innkeeper’s help, I am sure they were keenly aware of the absence of loved ones, feeling scared by the hardships of delivering a baby in an unfamiliar place and by the uncertainty of that first Christmas. With the angel’s message of advent given to Mary and Joseph fading in the background of the less-than-ideal context, I dare say this was a blue Christmas, indeed.
But something happened. As Isaiah’s Prince of Peace gently cooed in the manger, angelic beings and lowly shepherds shared a message of hope: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). The Gospel narrative posits that people were amazed, and Mary treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:18-19). It is as if the Christmas blues exploded with God’s eternal light. So, as we ponder the stress, anxiety, and loneliness that the Advent season brings, I offer E. S. Elliot’s words:
Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.
In Nobis Regnat Iesus,