The “most wonderful time” of the year is upon us, but for many it may be the most miserable. As we approach the holiday season, especially at the end of such a fraught and disconcerting year, I am ever more aware of how the winter holidays are already a stressful time for many people.

Expectations seem to rise higher each year, the savviest marketers swoop in before the first frost with their dazzling lights, peppy and joyful music, jolly Santas, caroling children and too many choices tempting us away from the true meaning of holiday season and toward this year’s absolute “must-have” gift or gadget.  

Oh– and the bright happy smile? Obligatory.

Even if you have the time, energy, endurance and bank account it is challenging to avoid the pitfalls that are inevitable during times of such enforced conviviality. Especially if you are facing your first holiday season after a profound personal loss, through death or dissolution of an important relationship for example, the holidays can make you feel many things, likely not including inspired and excited….

I am a Divorce mediator, my clients are couples whose families have been disrupted by the breakup of a union. Although my formal purpose is to deal with legal issues of my divorcing clients, my more personally meaningful role is that of a coach during and after divorce.  At least at first, the holidays become not only emotionally difficult but a logistical nightmare.

Holidays are about rituals unique to every family, specific traditions evolved over years of unity; even if you despise the lentil soup, you will eat it and be happy to have pleased Aunt Hazel, you’ll let Uncle Al win at ping-pong, just because; that painfully itchy sweater that Grandma made for you??  You’ll suffer stoically and keep it on until you get to the car.  Baking, ice-skating, caroling, watching holiday favorites, bundling up the sleepy children for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass... You were a part of that then, but this year your ex picked up the kids to celebrate like “before” and you are alone. Even in most amicable uncoupling situations, it is difficult not to feel somewhat excluded, nostalgic and lonely. 

Times and circumstances change and the adjustment can be painful. The picture perfect x-mas with generations of loving families coming together in joy and peace is not, by far, the only accurate depiction of how people experience this time of year.  Not everybody has an abundantly dressed holiday table with adorably wrinkly faced grandparents with soft silver hair or happy cherubic babies with rosy cheeks.  Some tables are missing the legs that always held them up, other tables have nothing on them.  Some tables will have an empty chair, formerly occupied by a recently passed loved one or a soldier serving in a far off land. Some folks will sit at the tables of a church cafeteria, and others will have no table at all, and will wander the empty streets, solitary under all of the twinkling lights….

My understanding of the true meaning of Christmas is about love and the celebration of this miraculous act of love from God; he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

Let us be especially empathic and loving to those who are suffering loss for any reason at all, offer a gentle smile, a kind hello, let them feel “seen”. Make it a point to spend time with them, let them know that they matter.  The value of time spent in the service of others is immeasurable and the most self-loving gift we can give this, indeed any,  season.      

And that is the miracle of Christmas.

Happy Holidays to all.