Reinventing the Holidays

Every year I sit back in my little home office and watch as Joe, my neighbor decorates his house with Christmas lights from top to bottom.  He takes great care while balancing on a ladder as he hangs icicle lights around his gutters, plugs in his glowing reindeer and lines the driveway with plastic candy canes.  He and his wife, along with many people I know, consider this their favorite time of year.   

I however, always being the oddball, am having a difficult time this holiday season.  Dare I go as far as to say that I’m dreading it, as I have done every year for as long as I can remember.  I’ve gone back and forth as to whether I should even share these thoughts, considering my blog is open to those who know me.  Just thinking these things makes me feel like I’m keeping some horrible, unforgiveable secret.  But then I thought well, maybe it’ll be therapeutic to just get these thoughts out.  Maybe I’ll feel better, or at the very least, feel understood.    

When I began therapy after my mother’s accident last year, my therapist asked me about the upcoming holidays, how I celebrated, and whether I was looking forward to them.  I sat there, dumbfounded. I think I summed it all up when I said that if past years are any indication, I’ll have the tree and every trace of holiday decoration down, packed away and stored in the attic by Christmas morning.

I have no particularly fond family memories of Thanksgiving growing up, but I do have short bursts of pleasant memories at Christmastime when I was quite young, like watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman on our television, and waking up to the belief that Santa had come to see me the night before.  But most of my memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially over the past 20 years or so have been filled with anxiety and stress.  Our home used to be very turbulent growing up, in part, due to a mentally handicapped family member who had, and unfortunately still has a tendency to be violent.  For me, holiday memories are sprinkled with a crying mother, a frustrated father, and me left feeling helpless and frightened in an out of control household.

Every year around the beginning of November I try to head into the holidays with an open mind; I keep a mental list of Things I’m Grateful For to help me focus on the positive things I have in my life. I bake pumpkin bread for family and friends; I enjoy the act of giving. But by mid November, I wish I could just leave town and not return until after December 25th;  it would be nice if I could skip over that time of year altogether.

Our family situation has always been very precarious.  I think that my brother enjoys being with his siblings, but he has many disorders that, even with medication, rarely allow him to remain calm and it’s very difficult to carry on a conversation with him.  I’ve been unfortunate enough to have crossed his path at the wrong time and as a result ended up on the floor with my ears ringing from a blow across the head.  Still, he is my brother and I love him, and I realize that he cannot control these outbursts any more than a deaf man controls what he cannot hear. 

The strange thing is, I’ve worked with the handicapped for over 20 years and have a good deal of experience with violent and non-violent people alike.  But when it comes to my brother, all of those years of experience fly right out the window.  I am so emotionally involved that I cannot separate feeling from logic.  I have no idea how to relate to my situation with him. 

How do you react to upcoming events that you are not looking forward to?  For me, the anxiety I feel as the event gets closer makes me want to pull out that old comfortable habit of emotional eating.  It is the one thing that has always soothed my nerves.  Of course this is exactly what I don’t need, and I realize this.  Still, that pull is always there, and this is one of the few times per year that I truly feel like I’m one step away from losing control of what’s happening around me. 

Seeing that therapist last year helped me realize why I have anxiety issues and why I feel more at ease when I have a plan in place (chances are if you have an issue or problem that you can’t figure out, look to your childhood and you’ll generally find all the answers you need).  As far as answers to my adult problems, my therapist suggested that my husband and I create our own holiday traditions, even if that means planning a vacation from the holidays.  If I thought I could do that without suffering any guilt from it I would, but two of my siblings will not be attending either holiday this year, even though they both live nearby; therefore I have a hard time considering the idea of leaving my mother with one less child during Thanksgiving or Christmas.  I love my family – all of my family, but sometimes I just wish that things could be different but the outcome is always the same.  I arrive and within an hour I am stressed, anxious and just downright sad.

I think I need to accept the fact that things aren’t always going to go smoothly, no matter how much I want them to. I need to stop mourning that loss and accept the things I can’t change.  Maybe then I can let go of what I can’t have and begin concentrating on the things I can change.

My husband and I have begun discussing the thought of creating our own holiday traditions, although we really don’t know what that means, yet; just starting from scratch and throwing out the traditional.  It’s pretty clear that traditional just doesn’t work in our lives, anyway.  All I know is that if there is a way for me to figure out how to get through this holiday season having somewhat relative peace without gaining 10 pounds, then I’m willing to tackle this project head-on. 

How do you get through the holidays? Any tricks or tips that you might be willing to share that might help those of us with the holiday blues?

36 thoughts on “Reinventing the Holidays

  1. Michele @ Within Reach

    The holidays are difficult times for so many people; so, you are not alone in that.

    I think creating your own traditions is a wonderful idea, and it doesn’t have to be something you plan or figure out. It can be as simple as watching a movie together on Christmas Eve, but then you do that two years in a row — Bam! there’s your tradition! :)

    I love the holidays… even more so now that I’m living far away from my family (mostly my mom and brother). I used to love the presents, but last year, I learned without a doubt that it’s not about the presents. Since I have to spend about $600 at Thanksgiving and another $600 at Christmas just to travel to be with them, it leaves me little to work with for presents for others or for getting something special for myself (something I’ve always done in the past).

    Though we can celebrate togetherness throughout the year (and we should), the holidays can be a special time to remember that despite their flaws, our families are the only one we’ll have. It’s important to try to find one positive thing about even the worst of the people you’ll encounter over the holidays.

    As for food — I’m just hoping not to gain any weight. If I can stay the same, I’ll be overjoyed! Continued exercise is the plan.

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      I think that sometimes it takes moving away from one’s family to truly appreciate who they are and what family means. Being involved in chaos year after year never seems to give me the opportunity to do much appreciating; not that I don’t appreciate my family, because I am a firm believer in the meaning of family. I think maybe it’s more of the idea that so much pressure is put on these holidays and they will never live up to a reasonable expectation. Period. Letting go of that idea is what I really need to work on.

      Reply
  2. Karen@WaistingTime

    I’m so sorry that this time of year is so hard for you. I am rather a scrooge with it all for many reasons which I won’t go into. But, I do find joy and pleasure in some aspects. I love the idea of you creating your own traditions. They don’t even need to be traditions! Lots of people get away this time of year. Maybe you need to put yourself first and come up with a great excuse.

    If it would help to vent now and then, please feel free to send me an email and let it all out:)

    Hugs.

    Reply
  3. Joy

    I too have a difficult family and I rarely see them during the year. I always found it hard, after rarely seeing them, that I would have to spend my precious holidays with them. So a couple of years ago, we adopted off holidays. That means we pick “another” day to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with them. Everyone gets together, we have the traditional foods and celebrate – just not on the actual holiday. That satisfies the family get together thing. But it also brings me much peace! I started with Thanksgiving. I told my family that I wanted to open my home to other people who did not have family that day and that’s what we did and we had a blast. Then there were the Thanksgivings where it was just with our kids or we’d volunteer at the rescue mission etc. We did whatever we wanted!

    Christmas we established “Movie day” and we just watch movies all day, just my Hubby and I. It’s fabulous!

    So I’m not saying totally write off the family, but you choose how you want to do it. Another thing we do, is sometimes we do see them on “one” of the days ~ never both Thanksgiving and Christmas!

    If you do this, you will feel guilty…..for just a while. I did and I got over it FAST! I think what helps is that I am in control of how it’s done….and if things don’t go well, then I don’t do it again. (Honestly, if I were ever hit by anyone, don’t care if they are family or not, I would never see them again! Sorry, I just can’t do that)

    This year – we are traveling to another family members house – we never have Thanksgiving with them. We are so excited!

    Just a thought…works for me and my sanity and you know I’m worth it ~ you are too!

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      So, it CAN be successfully done! Thank you Joy for sharing with me how you’ve managed to make this time of year work for you. You’ve given me a lot of ideas and things to mull over in my head. Maybe this year will bring with it a new attitude about the holidays.
      Again, many thanks.

      Reply
  4. Cammy@TippyToeDiet

    I’m so sorry for your holiday…ickiness, but I love the idea of creating your own traditions. Maybe they could be ‘compensating traditions’, like beginning (or ending) each day with 10-15 minutes of quiet time (perhaps with some soothing tea or a medicinal glass of wine) to share your frustrations or joys of the day. For me, knowing I would have the “venting time” to share my thoughts and feelings would help me better manage my emotions in dealing with the stressy stuff.

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Good thought, Cammy. I know there has to be a neutral ground in there somewhere; I just have to figure out what it is. I also know that I am not going to please everyone and that’s something I need to be prepared for. Just getting these thoughts out on my blog here has given me a bit of clarity; and always, having friends like you for support is the biggest bonus there is ;)

      Reply
  5. NewMe

    Ellen, good luck to you during the holidays. It’s so fraught for almost all of us, but for some (like you) more than others.

    And thanks again for you kind words on my blog. Cyber-friends like you really make a difference in my life!

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      My thoughts exactly about you :)
      It’s posts like these (you know the ones…uncomfortable and all) that are sometimes the hardest to leave comments on. Thank you for being so supportive.

      Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Thanks, Greg. Sometimes it’s nice to have a blog that you can use to just empty the trash, you know? You don’t really expect anyone to fix your problem, but having a support network (and someone objective) can make all the difference.

      Reply
  6. LauraJayne

    I like the Christmas season – music, trees, etc, but rather hate the expectations. However, I like presents, so I normally am pretty festive – I just try not to suffer the post-Christmas depression. More than Christmas, however, I LOVE Thanksgiving. It is by far the most important holiday to my immediate family and I can’t ever imagine missing it, even now that it has to be gluten-free!

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      I wish I could bottle that positive energy you have, Laura. I think maybe if I spent my holiday with you and your family, you might just convert me! lol

      Reply
      1. LauraJayne

        I hope you know that you are more than welcome – although I will caution you that Thanksgiving is the holiday we really celebrate. Christmas is usually just a big meal and presents. In fact, if you weren’t so far away, I’d suggest that you come this year! I think it is my family that makes the holiday, not my positive attitude, especially because I spent a large portion of the past 5 years being so negative!

        Reply
  7. KCLAnderson (Karen)

    We have so much in common Ellen…and this line:

    “Seeing that therapist last year helped me realize why I have anxiety issues and why I feel more at ease when I have a plan in place (chances are if you have an issue or problem that you can’t figure out, look to your childhood and you’ll generally find all the answers you need).”

    …resonated. When I was a kid, holidays were fraught with the same kinds of issues for similar reasons, but the mental illness was not as obvious. These days there are a very few places that feel “safe” to me for holiday get-togethers, not to mention that my family is so fractured and so spread out that there is no “core” event or celebration. In fact, this year my husband and I aren’t doing anything for Thanksgiving. And that’s just fine with me.

    As for Christmas, I really prefer just to spend special time with those who are important to me (and they feel the same way). Of course, with a new grandson, there will be some new traditions started.

    I resent the automatic-ness of “the holidays”…it feels like nothing is really special any more because it’s all the same. I’d rather just make sure that I see and spend time with people throughout the year than to have this prescribed time, if that makes any sense.

    Oh, and another thing? I am not religious and so the meaning of Christmas is a little different for me…it’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, because I do, but for me, there’s no middle man. God = positive energy both inside and out.

    In the meantime, if you’re so inclined, check out my latest post on anxiety: http://www.kclanderson.com/whatif

    Wow…talk about a disjointed round-about comment.

    Reply
  8. Beth

    Oh, my good freind Ellen….I so wish that we lived closer together so we could go out and talk about our problems together, or go out and forget about our problems and just have a great time together. Maybe you should move 2 hours north??? Love you my friend!

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      No matter where we are on this planet, it’s so comforting to know that you are still ‘here’ with me. And I’m always there for you, too :)

      Reply
  9. Sharon

    I, too can empathize with not all, but many of the emotions you described and yes, my feelings all stem from emotional pain stemming from childhood holidays which were far less than satisfactory. It would be impossible to adequately verbalize in a comment, so just know that I hear you. Here are two very specific things that have worked for us. 1) Focus on giving to those who have little or nothing. It doesn’t (nor should it) minimize the problems you have, but it does make you appreciate things we often take for granted. I have many opportunities through my church, but also through Angel Tree at the mall, Operation Christmas Child, etc. 2) The idea about creating new traditions just for the two of you is a good one and one we incorporated a long, long time ago. We steadily work our way through the holidays doing the things we have to do and participating with a smile and good will, BUT we both know that New Year’s is OURS! It is our Christmas! There have been years we didn’t even exchange our own gifts until New Year’s because it separated our special time from all the other hoopla. We don’t go out, we don’t accept invitations, sometimes we’ve been in Florida, sometimes we’ve rented a cabin in the mountains, sometimes we just stay home and don’t answer the phone. We generally watch movies and just enjoy a total focus on each other. It is something we look forward to from Thanksgiving on. So yes, creating a unique tradition of your own preferably AFTER the madness of Christmas is over gives you something to look forward to and I promise, will help!

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Sharon, this comment really grabbed me, because what you describe sounds exactly what we are trying to establish for ourselves. I think once we’ve found ‘it’ then hopefully we’ll settle in like you and your hubby have, and dare I say – look forward to our own holiday? That would be remarkable!

      Reply
  10. teresa

    I’m all for creating new traditions. I have a big family too and it’s always been a mixture of love and tension… and even the occasional fisticuffs (different with all girls, I’m sure.. more slaps than punches).
    I’m in love with the Christmas season and I think it’s possible to tap into the joy all around. The silly lights and decorations can be annoying or fun. This year we have the benefit of a 4 year old in the house. It’s much easier to see the magic through her eyes. Though this year we have to really introduce her to the idea of giving. One of my mom bloggers did a great post about an alternative advent calendar that has ideas for activities instead of candy… Maybe you can do your own sort of “treat of the day” that isn’t food. Maybe you and your husband can even take some days each to surprise each other with an idea… Make it a season of your own playtime with each other, leading up to your own special day (a “Festivus” all your own!) That way, when you go spend Christmas day in the looney bin, it can just be a family visit, unrelated to the “Big Day”.
    I also think that some good numbing carbs on that day might be in order. As long as it won’t make you sick. Or a sedative of another kind. I like bread myself.
    Here’s the link to the advent calendar… http://codenamemama.com/2011/11/16/activities-advent-calendar/

    Reply
  11. Hanlie

    I really identify with this. We usually spend Christmas Eve with my family and Christmas Day with Craig’s family. I never really look forward to these events and heave a great sigh of relief when it’s all over. If I could afford it, I’d much rather go away somewhere – even on my own. Maybe next year…

    At least this year I have other plans for New Year’s Eve, which we usually spend with my family.

    I’ll be thinking of you!

    Reply
  12. Jan

    I think holidays in general are stressful even if you have the best of family situations. I’m so sorry they are so stressful for you. I agree with your Therapist…you should do what makes you feel comfortable, even if that means you need to start your own tradition with your husband. Praying for you as you become comfortable with whatever decision you make.

    Reply
  13. debby

    Ellen, you definitely need to give yourself permission to start your own traditions. Just because you don’t have children does not mean you are not worthy of your own personal time. I had wonderful childhood holidays, but in the last years there have been lots of family problems that were extremely stressful. I retreated into the convenient “I have to work” because of being a nurse. This year, of course, I am retired, and I made proactive decisions to spend Thanksgiving with my best friend and Christmas with my brother. Neither of those choices provides me with what I want most at the holidays, which is to spend some quiet time at home with my ‘family’ (doggies) and with my God. But I am looking forward to them. Next year might be my home year!

    Reply
  14. Jenn @ Cooking Aweigh the Pounds

    I’m sorry that the holidays bring so much anxiety for you. You are not alone! If it weren’t for our kids, my husband and I would be totally happy with keeping very low key during the holidays. Maybe take a trip to somewhere warm or stay home for a fondue date night and a movie. Until then, we do the necessary rounds, but my husband and I always make sure to set aside family only moments so that we’re not constantly “on”. Maybe you and your husband can set aside some time each week during the holidays to recharge and regroup? Whether it’s a couple hours at a coffee shop or mini golf or whatever. It gives you something to look forward to each week and could be a nice vent session. ;-) At the very least squeeze in more yoga!

    Reply
  15. Jane at Keeping the Pounds off

    20 years ago my husband and I moved our family 1200 miles away from family and friends to begin anew. We started our own traditions, including never again being forced to spend a holiday with practicing drunks, smokers or rude people who happened to be in the same family. The traditions we built into our holidays over these twenty years are still precious to us now.
    Each year we continue to refine our traditions and more and more they involve food less and less.
    I wish you peace and joy in your holidays this year.

    Reply
  16. Jill

    I love the idea of creating your own traditions. I think that we feel obligated to do things- and over time we can begin to resent them rather than enjoy them. The holidays- which are supposed to be about togetherness- can end up being stressful and full of guilt and regret.
    I know it is not always to do what is easy and best for ourselves. It makes us feel selfish. Perhaps though- when we take care of ourselves first we can be better daughters, sisters, wives and friends.
    My husband and I often talk about “breaking free” from the traditions… not an easy thing to do.
    I am so sorry you feel this way around this time of the year. I wish I could take your icky feelings away for you. You don’t deserve them! xoxoxox

    Reply
  17. Lynn~The Learning Curves Blogger

    I grew up as an Air Force brat and was therefore, away from my extended family for most holidays. We were rarely stationed close enough to be able to afford to travel for visits. So, it was mostly my mom, dad, sister and me during the holidays. Since many of our friends were in the same boat, we often spent holidays with friends instead of family. Now, as an adult who is living 3000 miles away from even my immediate family, there is even less of a ‘burden’ to participate in what’s become such a commercial season and to continue with the tradition of spending time with friends.

    As you know, I have no children and my fiances’ daughter is grown and lives in Southern California (we are in Northern Ca). Neither of us are particularly religious nor do we feel obligated to spend money we don’t have on gifts that we would generally buy for ourselves throughout the year as needed. For those family members we DO have, we have weighed the costs and benefits (emotionally) between spending time with them and doing what we REALLY want to do. It may seem selfish but, in the end, we feel it is more important to save our sanity and to stay away from the toxic people who tend to bring out the worst in us.

    We have been ‘celebrating’ Festivus (as seen on Seinfeld) for the past 3 years. It’s become the “party of the year” at our house and all of our friends look forward to the non-traditional holiday party. It’s a time when we can laugh at ourselves (and each other), enjoy the company of those we care about, not succumb to the the ridiculous consumerism of the season, and really, to NOT feel bad about bowing out of Christmas.

    It’s one of the reasons we are getting married on Christmas Day…it will finally give us something to celebrate on Dec. 25th. =)

    Reply
  18. Paula

    I share your feelings about the holidays. When you come from a family where unhappiness is in control, it is difficult to understand the warm fuzzy holidays that so many people I know speak of. I have no fond memories of holidays or any family time. Where I grew up, it was called survival. Look to the future?? Hell, making it through one more day was a miracle. I believe your husband is 100% correct in making new traditions even if it means without the family. I’ve lived near mine and the last 7 years 1500 miles away. I like the distance better. It makes things go smoother. My father died in April of this year. We did make up and when he was within a few weeks of his last day on earth he asked for a visit from me & my hubby. He was so consumed with regret that I felt bad for him. It is too late for sorry, but it did bring closure. I plan to live my life where I don’t regret the way I treated people like he did. Frankly, you have every right to feel the way you do about the holidays. Don’t feel bad or wrong to not like them. My husband & I make our own holidays and there are times that I feel guilty for not wanting to spend them with my family, but then I remember something Oprah said on her show, I do not know the exact words but I took the following from it. “Love does not hurt, If it does, then it is not love.” Do I love what is left of my family. Of course. But I don’t feel guilty any longer.

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Thank you for this comment, Paula. Reading about other people’s experiences has made me realize that feeling the way I do is completely normal. I’m glad that you were able to make peace with your father before his death. Regret isn’t something anyone should have to endure on top of grief. Thank you for sharing. I hope you had a good holiday yesterday.

      Reply
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  20. auntiekim

    Ellen, this really hit home with me. I’m so sorry that the holidays are so stressful for you. I can relate to a lot of what you said. My sister is bipolar. While she’s well controlled, and if you saw her you probably wouldn’t know there was anything ‘wrong’ with her, she’s all over the place emotionally and it’s really hard to deal with. The stress of the holidays cause her to become severely depressed every year and she takes it out on the rest of us. It’s really hard to be the brunt of someone else’s feelings, even when you know that they’re not fully in control of them. We got a break for Thanksgiving, but she’s hosting Christmas (for this first time!) this year, for about 25 people, no less. She’s already flipping out and I’m already dreading it. I’ve already read your Thanksgiving post and I’m really glad you were able to have a good day. Wishing you peace at Christmas.

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Thank you for such a supportive comment. Those of us who have family members with mental illness know how unpredictable any family get-together can be. I sympathize with you and understand. I will be thinking of you over Christmas, and hope things go smoothly. I also hope you take some time to realize that YOU deserve a good holiday, too. It’s taken me all my life just to now begin to realize that I shouldn’t have to make sacrifices year after year just because I’m ‘supposed to’. Everyone deserves to be happy over the holidays. Hugs to you.

      Reply
  21. Munchberry

    Ah. I see how things went. Ish. No wonder you got sick.

    I wonder if it might be possible to do something special with your mom before and after the holidays next year and then come the actual week or day, you and your guy go out and do something completely new and fun. You get a beautiful dress and go to a play. The next night to a long, lux dinner. No discussing family – only discussing your great fortune to have one another and generally happy things. Rejoice. Maybe save up for a trip to go somewhere warm. Christmas can mean laying out on the beach sipping pina coladas! You can wear a red bathingsuit as a nod to the day.

    What mom does is up to her. If she wants to go out too, maybe you set aside one day special for her. There are 360 some odd days left to do and be special to your other relatives, including your MH brother.

    Luckily your kindness and generosity is not reserved for one day. Let those few days be about being thankful and rejoicing.

    Reply
    1. Ellen Post author

      Husband and I are changing things up this year. Have plans for a Groupon-approved trip to Chicago, this time to go and spend time seeing the lights and sipping hot toddies in the bar. Dogs will be at Doggie Daycare all snugged in their beds and we’ll be back in time to pay our respects on Christmas Day. This is just the beginning of our future traditions together.

      Reply
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