I'm a big fan of Christmas. I love the smell of a fresh-cut pine tree and never worry about the needles in my carpet. I love knowing all the children will be home and enjoying their favorite foods. I love the songs, the foods, the shopping, the presents…I even like fruitcake. Granted, not every holiday season has turned out to be the Norman Rockwell painting that flashes through my brain. Like most mothers I've faced the challenge of irritable children, frustrated in-laws, and burnt pies.
Though I seem to have an inexhaustible positive attitude about the season, I have experienced complete meltdowns. A run to my bedroom for a private hissy fit, lots of prayer followed by a deep breath, and I'm ready to go again. I totally sympathize with overloaded moms who dread extended family dinners and parties. It can feel as though Halloween through New Years is a continuous marathon cooking show specializing in spiders climbing cupcakes, Oreo dirt pudding, decorated cookie ornaments, 60 ways to re-plate turkey, and how to make a football stadium out of cheese and parsley. Add all the trick-or-treat safe gatherings, potluck suppers, choir practice, plays, cookie exchanges, shopping, and Santa Claus lines filled with screaming children dressed in red velvet, and you have the makings of a postseason nervous breakdown. (I'm exhausted just writing about it.) Throw in three children excited about Christmas vacation while sleep deprived and sugar infused, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Depression during the holidays is usually associated with people who are alone and possibly suicidal. I believe there is a larger segment of depressed people lurking in busy homes. Parents who are surrounded by wonderful children and a loving family can become mildly depressed. When hard work doesn't produce a "perfect" holiday, melancholy or mild depression can float into the holiday schedule. This mild depression is usually caused by a false image of the perfect Christmas. Parents may dream of Norman Rockwell paintings, magazine layouts that include cherubic children perfectly dressed, a banquet of food prepared by Mom in velvet high heels, friends gathered around a piano, and Dad lounging by the fire. Mild depression hovers when their homes show more reality than staged photos.
Even with all the hustle-bustle and frustrations, I still get a warm feeling when I think of the holidays. In order to survive and avoid total meltdown, I've discovered a few tricks that help bring reality a little closer to the pictures in my mind. Before I schedule my yearly inventory of holiday necessities, I place a tattered handmade card on my refrigerator. The edges are frayed and the glitter has worn off. The red and green letters are faded but still proudly proclaim, "DESIRE."
DESIRE is an acronym that helps me stay focused on my goals for the holidays.
1. "D" Define what's important. Decide whether you are building a picture for yourself or trying to make your family comfortable. If your goal is for yourself only, then you may be a one-person show. Since other people are involved, you will almost certainly feel a letdown when they don't take the shape of the live tree as seriously as you do. If your goal is to share time with your family, make everyone comfortable, and watch an interaction of love—then your goal should shift from you to others. Before jumping into the ritual of decorating to the hilt, take time to ask your family what they want most. You may find that your children would rather watch a Christmas cartoon with you than decorate cookies. If so, buy the cookies and take the time to watch the movie. If your husband would rather spend time in a coffee shop with you than search for the perfect gift for Uncle Joe, get a gift card and meet hubby for coffee. Allow your family to help you plan your "perfect" Christmas.
2. "E" Expectations can be false. Let go of impossible expectations. The "parenting glow" is an unreasonable expectation. Parents attend family gatherings hoping to take home first prize for the best children in attendance. The stewing pot for a miserable time begins upon arrival. The 10-year-old grumps to a chair in the corner, the 7-year-old runs through the house and knocks over a candle, and the 4-year-old screams anytime he gets near the beloved grandpa. While grandma shakes her head and sweetly announces, "Boys will be boys," your face turns beet red and the stewing pot boils over before "Merry Christmas" can cross your lips.
A little preparation will help you defuse those expectations. Adult family parties can feel long and boring to children. Don't expect your children to warm immediately to people they haven't seen all year. Bending the normal rules a tad during this time can help your family cope with new experiences. Allow the 10-year-old to bring a toy or his favorite game—with one expectation. He is only allowed to play it as long as he includes one new family member each hour. Requiring him to include a family member even if it's only long enough to explain the game will help him create relationships that otherwise would be rejected. If playing with him is not an option, perhaps he can stop long enough to ask one person per hour what games they played when they were his age. He will begin to see adults as people he can talk with and they will see him as an inclusive child.
Allow the 7-year-old to wear play clothes (may be a good idea for all three) at first so she can go outside and play ball or do some other activity. Every hour she must go inside and share a snack with a family member. A small child bringing a cookie to Aunt Martha will help everyone's perception of your sweet child.
A tiny snack for the toddler won't ruin the day. Grandpa's prickly face, wrinkled skin and deep booming voice may be terrifying to a toddler. Bring tiny toys or snacks like bits of candy and distribute them to family members your toddler avoids. Gently encourage your toddler to play a game of hide and seek. Have the child look for the family member who has a special toy. Receiving a favorite toy from grandpa will facilitate understanding of the fact that grandpa isn't so scary. Encourage family members not to push relationships but to allow them to happen naturally.
Save the fancy good clothes for a few moments before family pictures. That way there's no fussing about getting them dirty or spilling food prior to the pictures.
3. "S" Secure the job. Don't labor under the assumption that doing everything yourself will make it more memorable. If you can pay a vendor to do the job or solicit family members to help—do it! Only personal projects that enhance your plan for the season, are part of your family tradition, or bring you great personal satisfaction should be on your personal to-do list.
4. "I" Individuals are different. It's important to remember that everyone is different and different isn't bad. Don't blame your family for their likes or dislikes. If they don't like great-grandma's recipe for fruitcake, don't take it as a statement against your need to honor her memory. Instead, make a smaller one for yourself and eat it while looking at her picture. They may do the same for you when they remember your recipe for apple muffins.
5. "R" Record the memories. I'm a scrapbooker and I love to take pictures. I've discovered that our brains are quick to forget the good times. One thing goes wrong and it may overshadow ten things that were right. You may have had a wonderful holiday season but if just two things were bad, your brain can jump to the conclusion that the entire season was bad. Put your camera in full view of the busiest place in your home. Teach your children to take pictures. Get everyone involved in recording memories of the season. Anytime you feel the blues attacking your emotions, check your camera and remind yourself that you really are having a wonderful time.
6. "E" Enjoy the season. I know that sounds redundant, but parents often forget to take a breath and enjoy what's going on around them. Slow down. Pay attention to your surroundings. It's hard to believe that the holidays are good if you do all the work and never experience the fun. Take time to get involved in every activity you plan. Even if it means letting the dishes wait until morning. Be part of the fun.
Jesus is the reason for the season. As we celebrate the season with our goof-proof plan, I hope we will all remember the appearance of the angels. Their advice can also relate to our homes. "Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth [especially in our homes] to those with whom God is pleased'" (Luke 2:13-14).
Debbie Jansen is an author, speaker, and family counselor who lives in Canton, Ohio.