Not so Merry: Christmas with Depression

Katie Franzen | December 5, 2022

‘Tis the season! For Christmas trees and creches, for snow-covered lights and eggnog by the fireplace, for crisply wrapped presents and stockings filled to the brim, for carols and cookies, and all the holiday hugs. While the nostalgia is heart-warming, the reality is that it is also the season for unachievable social media expectations and the sun setting way too early, for dysfunctional family gatherings (or not gathering at all), for the extra sting of grief for loved ones who have passed away and for the gnawing guilt that you should be happy. 

As someone who has experienced clinical depression for most of my adult life, I’m well aware of the reality that Christmas isn’t always merry. As a young, single woman, Christmas was a reminder of my singleness. Even at Willow, we have a beautiful tradition of hugging and telling our families we love them while singing Silent Night at the end of our Christmas Eve services, but it highlighted the fact I didn’t have family nearby. 

Now, as a mom, on top of the normal list of to-dos in raising kids, there’s the additional holiday to-do’s–sending out the Christmas cards, decorating the house, cooking the food, buying gifts for everyone…and their teachers and babysitters and bosses, scheduling and navigating plans between the two (or more) sides of the family, getting the perfect family photos, finding the cute, but not obnoxious Christmas jammies, crafting the poignant caption for your social media posts, creating memory-making traditions…the list is endless! And while this season holds a bit of extra stress for everyone, as a mom, it feels like a lot of the extra pressure falls on me. 

So how do we handle the struggles that come along with Christmas? How do we focus on what’s most important?

For me, what I have found to be most helpful is to hold the reality of “both/and.” One lesson that I’ve learned is that our emotions are not a soundboard, with the ability to turn down some emotions while still experiencing the emotions we like to the fullest. Rather, our emotions are a volume knob. If we turn one down, it dampens all of them. We simply cannot experience the fullness of joy without also opening ourselves up to experiencing sadness. We must live a life of “both/and”—moments of sadness and happiness, moments of frustration and celebration, moments of heartache and overflowing love.

I’ve seen the richness that comes when we give ourselves permission to experience the “both/and” of life. Singing Silent Night without my own family to hug was hard, but it also gave me a chance to truly appreciate the friends in my life who have become family and to watch in delight as a whole room of people come together simply to express love and care for one another.

When I feel overwhelmed by the to-do lists, I give myself permission to feel a bit of anxiety and simply let some of the to-do lists remain undone. When I’m feeling sad because it is the first holiday season without my grandpa, I give myself space to grieve and cry.

So much of what we are taught as a society is that we have to hold it all together. Especially as Christians, there’s an added pressure to be joyful because we are celebrating the greatest story humanity has ever known. And while that is true, even the story of Jesus was one with a “both/and” throughline. An unplanned pregnancy AND a miraculous birth. A baby born as a refugee AND a Savior of the world. While it may seem counterintuitive, I encourage you to approach this holiday season with a “both/and” perspective. The beauty in creating space for the painful and challenging parts of life is that it opens us up to experience deeper, richer, more authentic happiness in spite of the hard.

If you are someone who is struggling with depression or having trouble feeling anything but numb, don’t try to power through the holiday season on your own. Find free resources and get help here

Read next: Moms at Christmas: Resisting Expectations of Perfection, Avoiding Burnout, and Staying Connected

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