It’s the season of joy and platitudes, a time when we may reflexively begin or end our correspondence with phrases, “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas.” But in this most unusual year, when so many have lost so much, it’s hard to be happy. There is tremendous loss, fear, and anxiety associated with the virus. At this point in the pandemic, if you haven’t lost someone or something directly, then you probably know someone who has.
Even so, it can be difficult to break the habit of forcing holiday spirit into every conversation. I get it. Before my daughter died, I didn’t think twice about wishing someone a Merry Christmas or Happy Chanukah or brightly chirping Happy New Year! to coworkers, acquaintances, and every random stranger that happened to make eye contact.
I was a romantic who believed in happy endings. My favorite holiday movies ended with reunions, miraculous last minute save-the-days, and life-changing epiphanies. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I was fully on board with the idea that seasonal holiday joy was universal.
Scrooge sees the light and his soul is saved.
George Bailey, deeply loved by his family and community, does not jump off the bridge and end it all.
John McClane not only single-handedly saves his wife, but wins back her love in front of all her colleagues on Christmas Eve!
(Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Debate over.)
No one wants to see George Bailey’s shattered family try to pick up the pieces after he’s killed himself. No one wants to witness Scrooge, having not changed his evil ways, die alone as the people he hurt gleeful pick through his belongings (Schadenfreude is not conducive to the holiday spirit.) No one wants to digest the terrible finality of Tiny Tim’s abandoned crutch and empty chair.
The old, oblivious me once watched these movies because they reinforced my belief in happy endings. They presented tragedy in a safe way, then brought me back to my happy place where warm cocoa and bright wrapping paper awaited. They perpetuated the myth that if you mustered enough gratitude, spread enough cheer, and did enough good in the world, things would turn out okay.
But real life isn’t like the movies. I lost my sweet girl to cancer and the first holiday season without her was empty.
“Happy Holidays!” said well-meaning store clerks and strangers.
“May your days be full of joy,” read many an email signature.
“Merry Christmas!” — the worst one of all.
The well-meaning tidings hurt my bruised heart that first year and it can still hurt to see these sentiments — to read them and hear them and feel obligated to say them myself.
This will be my fourth Christmas without Ana. I no longer hang her stocking. I don’t think too hard about the lack of presents under the tree. A gaping emptiness still lurks in the places where she used to be, in spaces that were once filled with her gifts and her laughter. I now understand that my heart will remain forever scarred and, in many ways, the holidays will always feel like a betrayal. I’ve been duped. The movies lied. I didn’t get the happy ending they promised.
And now, as this terrible year comes to an end, you might find yourself reexamining the sugar-coated joy that’s traditionally been the default setting from November through January, grasping for something to say when “Happy Holidays” feels wrong. I’ve been on both sides of the before and after. I have some recommendations for thoughtful things to say (or not) during what is questionably not the most wonderful time of the year.
Say nothing. You have my permission to forgo holiday well wishes completely. Sign your emails as if the world weren’t drenched in red, green, and white light. If you find yourself cornered by a rosy cheeked, aggressively cheerful store clerk or colleague wishing you a “very merry” something for the season, it’s okay to say “thank you” and be done with the unpleasantness of holiday pleasantries.
Acknowledge that the holidays are hard. Culturally, the way we’ve learned to celebrate the holidays (at least in the US) is to climb into our steamrollers of cheer and flatten all the bad stuff that exists, replacing it with bright and meaningless greetings that can feel dismissive to sad people. If you know someone is having a hard time — or even if you don’t — consider a new, more honest approach to holiday greetings. For example, you can say (or write) something like: “This has been a really tough year for so many people. I hope you’re okay.”
Ask people how they’re doing (and actually listen to their response.) Asking how someone is managing to get through this brutal holiday season may not be the right approach for every encounter (e.g., at the drive through window at Taco Bell). For colleagues, friends, and family members who you may be connecting with only sporadically (and remotely), consider asking them if they’re okay or how they plan get through the holidays this year. Then, really listen to their answer and acknowledge it. For example, you might respond with, “Yes, this year is really hard. We’re keeping it low key and ordering take out.” It’s a relief when I hear that other people aren’t having a picture perfect holiday season. The pressure to be cheerful this time of year is just so damn exhausting.
Keep the well wishes gentle and non denominational. If you don’t want to ask how people are doing or write a carefully worded sentiment that acknowledges that this year sucks, that’s perfectly understandable. You can still acknowledge the holidays (if you are inclined to) with some gentle language that lets people know you care without assuming that the holidays will be easy and carefree. I know many (many) bereaved parents. When birthdays and holidays roll around, as they inevitably do, we don’t default to “happy” anything. We say things like, “Wishing you a peaceful day,” or “Sending love and light” or simply, “My thoughts are with you.” If appropriate, we acknowledge their loss, “I know this is a hard time of year for you and I am so sorry that your child is not with you to celebrate.” These are things that work for me, but obviously everyone is different and something else may work for you.
Being thoughtful is never a bad thing. If 2020 gives us nothing else, it reminds us that joy is not everyone’s reality for the holidays. Holiday greetings should always be given with care. I started saying “Happy Holidays” again this year. I even bought holiday cards that express this sentiment, but I continue to use the phrase sparingly. For those who have experienced the worst loss imaginable, the magic of the holidays does return in certain ways, but it’s always bittersweet. Nothing will ever be the same again. With this in mind, I wish you all warmth, safety, and light this holiday season and beyond.