The first Christmas wasn’t necessarily the happiest day ever. Days on a donkey, pregnant with nowhere to sleep, bright lights in the sky, both smelly bad and smelly nice strangers showing up to look at your baby….not screaming Rockwell. Maybe it was the mix….the bad and good…the normal and sublime that make that day, for at least one reason, one that we have built so many stories and traditions around. In our modern pseudo-cultural Christmas time, we have done our best to hide the ‘bad’ parts of Christmas, the anxiety or sadness, under the trappings of the good, the decorations and presents. Can we yet say that in the same way the Corvette signals something about the driver, a Christmas light extravaganza can also inform us on the occupant of the house?
The tendency to avoid the bad in favor of the good or at least the palatable is an old ‘finding’ in the world of psychology. Sigmund Freud described a host of defense mechanisms processes for avoiding or hiding our unconscious feelings or desires in socially acceptable trappings—prior to the turn of the century. More colloquial, our social adherence to a ‘fake till you make it’ mentality has led to us to the point where a smile is somewhat more circumspect than a frown. Not a new finding, in 1967 Holmes and Rahe developed a Life Stress Scale. At the top of the scale, scoring 100 points, was the loss of a spouse. At the bottom of the scale, with a score of 12, was Major Holiday. Yes—there is metric to discern the relative difference between dinner with your in-laws and the death of your husband or wife! The holiday stress is not a new phenomenon.
But why all of this sad talk around Christmas, you might ask. And what does it have to do with ‘faking it’? A recent survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute asked respondents to rate their level of anxiety during the Christmas period relative to other points in the year. Over a third of respondents indicated that they experience more anxiety during this period of time. Interestingly, more women responded experiencing anxiety during the Christmas season than men. When asked if the respondent was likely to fake or pretend to be happy during the holidays, a little over one-third endorsed ‘painting on a smile.’ While no large differences existed between the sexes on faking it, the majority of the sample endorsed being glad when the season was over.
And isn’t it the truth….we’re glad when that one radio station stops playing the Christmas music, when you can find what you want in the store without wading through a sea of artificial trees, when your neighbor finally deflates the slightly ominous snowman buzzing on his lawn. We take down our own lights, throw out the boxes, and sigh that the process will not come around again for a year.
Christmas tends to engender a sense of sadness because of the build-up. The planning, the preparation, the presents, and the pigging out are all—usually—over the top. We have become adept at setting up the scene to for everything to go right. But…then…as usual…something fails. A bulb is out, the snowman won’t blow up, they don’t seem as happy about the present as you think they should…the tree dies…it happens to us all, or at least a third of us; Murphy’s Law has been plaguing Christmas from the beginning.
We already accept this to some extent in our Christmas culture. The Saint Leo poll from November 2016 asked respondents to rank their favorite holiday movies. “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Charlie Brown Christmas”, “A Christmas Story,” and “A Christmas Carol”….folks, something “bad” happening is central to each and every one of these stories. From Santa on trial and life without George to a Chinese Christmas dinner and horrifying trips down memory lane, we are drawn in by the drama to the extent the happy ending would mean nothing without the trials and tribulations that led there.
So maybe we have to return to the first Christmas to find guidance on how to handle the inevitable feelings of anxiety, build-up and let down, and bits of sadness that come with the season. Luke tells us that at the end of that long journey with all of its bumps along the way, in a barn surrounded by shepherds and farm animals, holding her new born baby that “Mary treasured up all of these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). All of it together, divine and mundane, was the totality of the experience; nothing could be left out without detracting from the whole.
In this Christmas season, our own good mental health needs to take a look at this first example and remember that all experiences are tinged with both happiness and sadness. Look forward into the holiday and enjoy the preparations even as you eat the burnt Christmas cookies and use birthday paper to wrap the presents. Watch with joy as children thank Santa Claus even as you feel the melancholy for those no longer with you. Praise your neighbor’s light display even when your own lights are more of a strobe than a twinkle. And, at the end of it all, wrap up all the memories and ponder the totality of your experience knowing you’re in good company.