The Christmas season, which is supposed to be cheery, also has a reputation for causing depression in some vulnerable individuals. Others are disgruntled. Some people announce to everyone that they hate the holidays, and this particular holiday most of all. Usually, they complain of having to put up with fights within the family that occur in the shadow of the Christmas tree seemingly for little reason. Someone just told me of two uncles who seemed to go out of their way to fight over some inconsequential event, such as the way a particular food is cooked. He recognized that the two uncles sometimes switched sides during the course of the argument! It is as if they were playing a game, something like scrabble, just to see who would win. These arguments are a reflection of family rivalries; and they seem to become more pronounced at a time when family gatherings are supposed to be especially joyful.
Unfortunately, most of those who hate Christmas have worse memories of family fights. One side of the family storms out of the house bitter about seemingly small slights. These offences are a cover for older resentments. When someone refuses to see a sibling because he or she forgot to say “thank you,” there are always more important injuries that took place in the past. They may very well be imagined injuries; but they are important nevertheless. For that reason apologies are often demanded and often refused. All those previous slights come to mind and the family members whose feelings are hurt resolve not to allow others to treat them disrespectfully, even though it may be that no such offence was intended. Consequently, there seems no alternative but to leave, or avoid, the family gathering.
At a time of togetherness, when others are gathering, some people feel especially alone. Being alone at Christmas seems to be a sort of failure, an inability to become important to others. There are parties everywhere, and they are not invited. They may try to live up to their obligation to be cheery, but they feel sad, if not frankly depressed. They may call friends who are far away. They may try to work, or if they are unable to work because of the holiday, they sit alone in a movie theater or at home in front of the television set, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” still one more time, waiting for the telephone to ring, wondering if a particular person may remember to call them. They may think about things that might have been. They spend Christmas waiting for the day after Christmas.
There is a kind of melancholy, however, that affects many more people at Christmas. It is the ghost of Christmas past. It is the memory of those who used to be present at such a time, but are no longer there. Grown children may be living on the other side of the country. Other family members and friends have died. And then beloved grandparents, or parents, or sometimes, most terribly, children who used to run about, are absent, forever. Those who used to laugh and tell stories are gone. They are not there to see the children open their Christmas packages. They are there in photographs on the mantel, but they are not really there. But they come to mind unpredictably at certain moments when a favorite meal is brought to the table or when a few people sing along with Christmas carols, or even when things get quiet at the end of Christmas Eve.
Recent losses are felt particularly acutely. As more Christmases come and ago, the memory of some of those who are missing begin to fade or, at least, come suddenly to mind less frequently. Instead people remember the events of the previous Christmas, when the younger children were running around and having fun. Those memories fill up Christmas. That new generation is still here; and the memories of them begin to replace those of a previous generation. Some people feel guilty because they no longer remember so acutely those who have died.
But that is the natural way of things. (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or ask questions at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column.