The Case for Holiday Blues: Why You Are Sad During Christmas

Picture of By Cindy Zheng

By Cindy Zheng

Have you ever felt especially sad during supposedly festive seasons, whether New Year’s Eve, Christmas, or maybe even your birthday? It’s not rare to feel more down than usual during a time everyone is expected to enjoy in extravagance. Taking a closer look at the whole affair surrounding Christmas, it is not a big surprise many feel burdened instead of enlightened by the thought of it.

In 1985, the New York Times documented the case for holiday blues:

“This type of depression, caused by unrealistic expectations, frequently occurs at holiday times [often creating] situations that cause people to feel sad.”

It can be surprising to hear, since the merriest time of the year is all about bringing happiness and warm fuzzy fireplace feelings. When evergreen Christmas songs occupy radio stations, Netflix fires off their annual year-end romcoms and the air is filled with Oliebollen and mulled wine – isn’t it even more the reason for bottomless glee?

We’re expected, almost scheduled to feel gleeful.

The inexplicable affliction that rings truer than jolly jingle bells for some is likely due to the factual nature of this holiday: we’re expected, almost scheduled to feel gleeful.

Organized fun and festivities

“Forced happiness makes us feel more sad, upset and lonely because we are faking our feelings,” according to Dr. Judith Orloff.

It’s on the same note as being disappointed at long-awaited trips, disenchanted during anniversaries or just not feeling it during any other occasions that are supposed to be extra special.    

Whenever there is a fixed idea, especially when it is also supposed to be fun, expectations can make or break the whole experience. Christmas has it extra hard, as many people have nostalgic feelings attached to this specific holiday that make expectations particularly unrealistic.

The empty promise of the past

Most of us know that the past is viewed through a curated lens, one that is rose-coloured and drenched in nostalgia.

“When we make sense of events, we lose the emotional intensity” – that’s how Patricia Riddell explains why Christmas was just better in our childhood. Adding mythical elements such as Santa Clause, reindeer sleds, and hard-working elves to the mix, that time of the year truly used to be pure magic for some of us.

It’s just common sense that we will not experience the holidays like back then. Nostalgia distorts our memories and in turn, our reality. If you are curious, you can find out exactly how much through this online test that is based on the Nostalgia Inventory measure by Dr. Krystine Batcho. And even if we are aware of our nostalgia, we cannot help but feel disappointed at this – when we revisit other childhood artifacts, such as toys, sweets or even playgrounds, they rarely meet our expectations.

More draining than delightful

On top of this, adulting includes a fatal ingredient: responsibility. As kids we never had to feel the stress of fulfilling every family member’s Christmas wish list. Holiday activities did not come with obligations, without needing to sprint through shopping malls and begrudgingly choose next-day delivery. While splurging for gifts can feel rewarding, it just easily causes financial worries. No wonder the most wonderful time of the year is often also the most burdensome.

Unrealistic expectations and stressful holiday preparations are just some of the reasons to feel anything but Christmassy. The oncoming family reunions can refuel old disputes, having a seemingly less exciting Christmas than peers on social media can be dispiriting, and the cold dark winter months throw us off our balance anyway.

I hope I am not the only one that prefers Coldplay’s Christmas Lights to Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas.

So if you don’t feel up to celebrating the upcoming holidays, it’s more than okay. In the words of Marisa Miller: “All I want for Christmas is a nap.” After all, I hope I am not the only one that prefers Coldplay’s Christmas Lights to Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas.

However, there is a difference between having the blues and being seriously depressed. It’s not the same thing according to neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez. While they can go hand in hand, Christmas blues will wash over once the festivities have gone by – which means, your holiday blues are temporary, and may even be tamable.

Defeating your Inner Grinch

If the holidays have you feeling down, here are a few ideas that could help.

  1. No one is having the perfect holiday season. Christmas is ideal for social media – one big filter for an entire season. Instead of comparing, remember that everyone celebrates and enjoys differently.
  2. It’s not a competition to please or impress anyone. Set your goals as personal as possible, and do not make a successful Christmas dependent on others’ expectations – or even leave out trying to achieve specific goals during this time in general.
  3. The past stays in the past. Nostalgia of various kinds can hit you, and not always in a good way. It is better to honour our memories by creating new ones, instead of idolizing the old.
  4. Give rather than receive. Especially if Christmas as a holiday feels meaningless to you, it is one method to give it some significance. Christmas is a sad season for the poor – in any case. John Cheever recognized this in 1949 already with his clever Christmas story, a short read you can also enjoy through the voice of Martin Freeman

Raise your spirits or just soothe your soul

There are many Christmas classics that are anything but holiday spirited. Listening to Last Christmas is an annually repeated emotional exhaustion, and Love Actually, a movie supposedly about love during the Christmas season, is actually just a big, long outstretched heartbreak.

If you feel like there may be no particular reason to be happy, there neither is one for being unhappy.

It’s a good example of how instead of feeling disillusioned by the harsh and consumerist reality of Christmas, we can try to embrace it both – the gloominess and the gleefulness – together. If you feel like there may be no particular reason to be happy, there neither is one for being unhappy. And if you really cannot or don’t want to shake off a gloomy demeanour during festivities, whatever they may look like, then at least rest assured that you are not alone –  follow this survival guide, listen to my personally compiled and curated sad xmas Spotify playlist, and we can mellow together. Don’t worry, it will be over soon.

Mellow Christmas everyone!

Cover by: Cindy Zheng

Edited by: Yili Char

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