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It’s Time to Spread Some Holiday Cheer

by on December 14, 2016 5:00 AM

I’m a huge holiday person. Or, at least, I used to be. I was that annoying neighbor putting up her lights the weekend before Thanksgiving. I stressed about finding the perfect gift for every person on my list, insisted that only holiday music play in my car, and hosted an annual Christmas Eve dinner for friends. Most importantly, I made sure Santa prepared a magical Christmas morning for the kids.

I knew there were people who didn’t share my enthusiasm. Grinches, I thought. Real-life Ebenezer Scrooges. The holidays were the most wonderful time of the year. Anyone who couldn’t appreciate that was clearly cold-hearted.

What I’ve learned over the past few years, however, is that everything is a matter of perspective. What seems all merry and bright to some, may be truly dark and dismal to others. The holidays can be a reminder of what once was, and now is lost. Of loved ones no longer with us. Of marriages ended in divorce. Of children struggling to fit in. Of life not being what we hoped.

My first year as a divorced woman I tried to keep everything the same. I decorated my new house in true mom-would-be-proud style. I made shopping trips to King of Prussia. I invited my extended family to spend the week at my house. And, I made very mature, co-parent decisions with my ex to celebrate Christmas morning all together. It seemed I could gloss over the fact that nothing felt the same.

The reality was that life was different. The young family innocence of Christmases past was gone. Holiday songs all seemed to deliver a different message. They weren’t about what I had, but about what I didn’t. The promise of a New Year seemed more like the threat of worse to come.

I spent Christmas Eve alone that year -- the first, and hopefully last, time I ever did. I drank a glass of wine, watched TV and wrapped gifts. While it may sound peaceful, to a person who thrived on the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it was an awful night. On that night, it dawned on me. Not everyone feels Christmas cheer, and  it’s not necessarily because they are cold-hearted. More likely, they are broken-hearted.

That holiday season opened my eyes to the real world. The world where there are broken families and struggling loved ones. The world where not everyone has a family joining them for Christmas dinner, and some people will spend the holiday season in and out of hospitals, or prisons, or rehab facilities. The real world where we need to look out for our friends and neighbors and remember that they just might need some kindness to get them through.

Awareness of mental health issues has, arguably, increased over the past decade. While experts disagree with one another, it seems to me that more of us are aware, or at least talking about, depression and anxiety. What isn’t disputed is the rise of these issues at the holidays. The reasons are plentiful and in line with what I’ve experienced in my own life. Put simply, social isolation and grieving — whether it be for a loved one or way of life — are amplified at the holidays and make “Joy to the World” seem that much further from the realm of possibility. Understanding this, and acknowledging what may cause grief, goes a long way to helping each other through the holiday season.

One of the biggest mistakes some of us make is downplaying what may be the source of problems for others. Sure, the divorce was complete six months ago, but I promise, that does not mean the pain has disappeared. Perhaps the illness is in remission, but the threat of its return may continue to haunt someone. And while their house looks beautifully maintained, you have no idea how worried they are that they will lose it if that job doesn’t come through.

So the holidays are here and, to many of us, that means lots of parties, presents, and family get-togethers. Unfortunately, for others, it means a lack of invitations, too few gifts, and the reminder that family togetherness is not a likelihood. I challenge you to look for those people.

Invite them over for a cup of coffee. Drop off an anonymous gift on their front doorstep. Remember that they may not want to seem all “bah, humbug,” but that life may be getting in the way of their holiday spirit. We live in a fairly small community where knowing the business of our neighbors is often unavoidable. Let’s make that work for us this holiday season and bring a little bit of joy to everyone we can.


Jillian Reese earned her B.A. (Advertising) and Ph.D. (Educational Leadership) from Penn State. She is a long-time resident of State College, and proud mother of three. Her column is purely her opinion and is based on her wide variety of professional and personal life experiences.
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