An impeccable setting - the perfect amount of snow and temperatures that allow beautiful people to sip coffee or hot chocolate on a deck that overlooks pristine views of mountains and ice-covered lakes for ice skating. Snowflakes fall on perfectly coiffed hair, designer coats, capes and cashmere scarves. The snowfall is timed beautifully depending on the content of the conversation.
Carolers sing flawlessly in the background - perfectly balanced sound in four part harmony. Evidently each caroler has been classically trained. Their pitch is unwavering in spite of the winter elements. The carolers are often accompanied by instrumentalists who must be hiding in the landscaping.
Lavish, sumptuous meals served in spacious yet cozy dining areas on tables decorated by interior designers. Quintessential meals are enjoyed by handsome muscular men and perfectly built beautiful women. Apparently, all the people who may have some minor physical blemish have stayed home for the day or maybe they are enjoying their meal in the adjoining dining room.
Imperfection is nowhere to be found in this scene because the scene is meant to depict absolute perfection - the ideal Christmas. It stirs the heart, it gives that warm fuzzy feeling. It allows one to step out of a very imperfect world momentarily into a land of flawlessness. It’s romantic, magical and dreamy.
And then it happens, the credits begin to roll and the realization that two hours passed quickly while slipping into a place filled with fantasy. It was enjoyable. Even the commercials brought tears causing reminiscent thinking. The two hours gave some time to rest, get warm and maybe even catch a few short naps. Now, yes, NOW! Finally, there is that “Christmas Spirit”. Where have you been, anyway? Now, at last it feels like Christmas!
Where is the top section of the Christmas tree? It was right here when the tree was put away last year. Oh well, no one will notice once the angel is on top. That will work perfectly, because there is no need for a ladder. The top is easy to reach. Now that the angel is not so high it can be seen so much better. Wait a minute, there seems to be a branch missing. Oh yeah, that little accident happened when putting the tree away. That open space can be remedied with just a little fluffing and a couple of oversized ornaments.
It’s raining outside creating some muddy slippery conditions making it very difficult to do the outdoor decorating. What in the world happened to that favorite Christmas Sweater? Apparently, it shrunk. It certainly doesn’t fit like it did last year. Looking in the mirror confirms that someone has been washing and drying Christmas sweaters improperly in this house. And by the way, that wrinkle was NOT there last year. Is that patch of hair thinning just a little bit? No, it can’t be.
This Christmas will be different. Last year there was a lot of tension, but now that the divorce papers have been signed it’s beginning to feel real. There have been so many losses over the past few years - the job, the death and now the divorce. The realization that the massive changes, the lack of finances and life circumstances does not allow or foster the creation of the perfect Christmas. The expectations, the dreams, the hopes for the ideal Christmas as seen on TV have been crushed. Most Christmas movies seem to have an element of predictability, but there is no way predict “the ending” of this season. Disconcerting, troubling, unsettling are words that don’t seem to adequately describe this moment in time.
Is this where you find yourself this year? Have you created expectations for this Holiday Season that are unreasonable? The movies, music, tv shows, magazines are certainly fun. They allow us to use our imagination and dream. We can reminisce of times past and dream of what we might like for our life to look like. I will admit that when it comes to sappy, I win first place! I love it all - the music, the movies, shopping, ALL THINGS CHRISTMAS! But, often, I find myself experiencing Post Christmas Letdown because my expectations have been way too high and based on what the media suggests Christmas should look like.
Being an avid fan of Peanuts, I love the scene in the “Charlie Brown Christmas Movie” where Charlie Brown exclaims “Doesn’t anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?”. Linus Van Pelt goes to center stage and quotes the account of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of St. Luke. He then finishes by saying, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
As a therapist, I sit with many people who will struggle deeply this Christmas. They have legitimate reasons for intense sadness and a plethora of other emotions. If you are one of those people, I want to encourage you “feel what you feel”. Allow yourself to step out of the expectations that you or others may have of you. Often it will mean you allowing yourself to grieve well your loss. Give yourself permission to embrace the feelings that come naturally with loss and hurt. Then LISTEN! Listen carefully in the midst of your darkness. Can you imagine with me that voice from the heavens “Fear not: for, behold, I bring YOU good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
I want to invite you to continue your journey. Allow yourself to sit at the manger. Engage all of your senses as you sit quietly in this very simple place. Watch all the activity, listen to the voices as they whisper so as not to wake the baby. Listen for the moments when the shepherds join the Angel Choir singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Rest there with me! As you continue to navigate your sadness, I want to encourage you to allow this peace just a small place in your soul. And as you do this, it does not mean that you won’t grieve anymore. It does not mean that your loss is no longer a loss. It just means that you are allowing the simplicity of that special night to bring light to those dark places in your soul.
Let me encourage you to be mindful of expectations that you place on yourself and this season. Hoping that you will be intentional about being kind to yourself and others. May you find rest and peace in this season of celebration.
Ralph Cook, LMFT