Snowsuit unzipped, mittens dangling, the little blonde boy stands rooted in front of the shuttered travel agency’s red and gold dazzled Christmas tree. People balancing coffee cups flow around him on their way to work in the mall’s shops and offices, gifting him with indulgent smiles. His ponytailed mother leans against a pillar a few feet away, flicking through her messages. She pockets her phone and reaches for the boy.
“Come on, Darien, let’s go.”
Without looking at her, Darien shoulder feints and shoves his hands in his pockets.
“I said we have to go. Right now. You’re going to make me late for work.” She digs for one of Darien’s hands, and he collapses in a heap on the floor.
“NO! NO! I don’t want to go! I want to stay here!”
“And I say we’re going NOW.” She picks him up, dodging his flailing arms and winter boots. The last I see and hear of them is her grimly tired face and his protesting shrieks, echoing up the escalator.
I’m sympathetic to Darien – and to Darien’s mom. Christmas can have a similar effect on me. I want to stand still, to experience its sparkle, to drink in its wonder. But Christmas realities – too little time, not enough money, conflicting priorities and expectations -can dim the glow and turn the wonder into wonder why. Conversations I’ve overheard in recent weeks – on the bus, in restaurants, in office hallways and elevators – tell me I’m not the only one feeling seasonal tension. “I told the kids we just don’t have the money for gifts this year”; “If she thinks she’s going to tell me how to run Christmas in my house again this year….”; “I can’t believe it. My daughter just e-mailed last night to say she’s not coming home for Christmas after all. She couldn’t even bother to pick up the phone. What kind of a Christmas are we going to have now?”
I’m also aware that some people are struggling with darker seasonal circumstances. A father is dying. A wife decides she doesn’t want to be a wife anymore. A son is in jail. When our lives feel anything but merry and bright at Christmas, where do we find the courage to cope?
I discovered a few possible answers to that question in an unlikely source. At work the other day, I was browsing a publication from the Justice Institute of British Columbia. Its introduction discussed the values of the BC public service, listing courage among them. When I saw the six suggestions for courageous behavior, and thought back to some of my own challenging Christmases, I realized I may have stumbled on some practical wisdom for those in search of ways to restore a little seasonal comfort and joy to their lives.
1) Be biased toward action: This publication reminded me that we might feel more courageous when we take courageous action. We might not be able to change our less-than-ideal seasonal circumstances, but we can work on how we respond to them.
2) Look beyond the process to see the possible: In the achingly beautiful song River, Joni Mitchell’s response to Christmas decorations and carols is a wistful wish for “a river I could skate away on.” When our mood doesn’t match other people’s cheerful preparations, it can be tempting to simply turn and run. A writer colleague of mine does just that, reserving a hotel room in Victoria and spending Christmas by himself. An alternative to retreating might be to stay put, looking past old Christmas processes to new possibilities. The year my marriage dissolved, I grieved the end of many Christmas traditions. But then, I began volunteering at the local youth emergency shelter. At Christmas, the shelter put out a call for stuffed animals to put under the tree for the kids who couldn’t go home. I spent hours in toy departments, conducting huggability quality control on plush bears. In the process, I forgot my own sadness for a while and hoped my gifts would help the youth to put aside their sorrow as well, however briefly .
3) Apply imagination: A few days ago, I visited an office in downtown Edmonton where I was delighted to find a highly creative response to the building’s ban on live Christmas trees. It reminded me of how powerful resourcefulness can be when obstacles threaten to take away the parts of Christmas we’ve grown to love.
4)Take thoughtful risks in generating and implementing ideas: It can be scary to leave behind Christmas traditions, even when they seem to have outlived their value. Scarier still when those traditions are cherished by those with whom you’ve shared them. I’m thinking here of the young woman I mentioned earlier who informed her parents by e-mail that she wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas. Initiating an honest conversation about the changes you want to make can take great courage. But your thoughtfulness gives an opportunity for everyone to have some input into the decision and possibly come to an amicable compromise.
5) Empower others to take initiative, even in uncertain times: Feeling sad or lonely or disappointed at Christmas can impede our ability to generate and implement ideas. But you don’t have to figure things out by yourself. A trusted friend, a good colleague, or a professional therapist can help you to decide how to take courageous action. Sometimes, asking for help is the first and bravest step in making a change.
6) Pursue a vision for the future: For me, having a plan is a great source of courage and strength. When I’ve had difficult Christmases, thinking about how I’d cope the next year helped me to feel a little more in control. I always hoped my circumstances would improve but sometimes I realized they may be the start of a new version of normal. Whatever the future held, I felt better able to face it with a plan in mind.
And so I wish you courageous Christmas. If your Christmas doesn’t require any courage, maybe you have a bit you could spare for someone who’s coming up short this year. Your donation could be one of the most important and appreciated gifts you’ve ever given.
(Please note that I am not a trained psychologist. This advice is based on the methods that have helped me and some of the people I know to cope with difficult circumstances at Christmas. If your situation is extremely challenging, please contact a mental health professional for assistance.)