The Relationships That Make Holidays So Difficult

Thanksgiving dinner, 1942, Marjory Collins [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We can look at several relationships and understand pretty quickly why holidays can be so difficult to survive.

My Relationship to Myself

End-of-year holidays beg me to evaluate how I did this year—do I have a good job? Am I in a significant relationship? Am I pregnant yet? Did I get the promotion? Did I do the writing or painting or other creative dream I held for this year? Did I lose weight or find a better hairstyle? Is my house or apartment clean and organized for once? Did I break that bad habit and start a better one? I have a secret and very long list for self-improvement, and it comes up for review every year around holiday time. This is especially true if I plan to send out any kind of Christmas update about me and my family. And because hardly anyone achieves what she had planned to achieve in a given year, such an evaluation leaves a person feeling like a failure, discouraged, angry, even hopeless. Sometimes all of these emotions converge about the time I get out of my car and walk up the front steps to this year’s holiday gathering.

My Relationship to the Past

When I go back to the town my mother lives in and where I grew up, the moment I cross a certain highway, the memories begin to well up. I cannot be in a certain geographic place without the memories being there too. This can be lovely and comforting, but of course the dark memories come back around too. Within a few hours I can feel like the awkward teenager who struggled so much to belong and to find love. I can feel ugly and rejected even though my life now is years away from the person I was then. I can in fact be doing well and looking all right and still be stuck to the emotions surrounding those bad memories. All I can do is hone my awareness for when my emotions begin to slide down that deep ravine of past hurt and regret. When the memories begin their damage, I can counter them with prayers of thanksgiving for what is happening now in my life. I can focus on other people I’ll be seeing and ask myself how I can be an encouraging presence for them—because every other person is doing that silent battle with the past too.

My Relationship to My Parents

It takes work and intent to make a distinct separation between me and my parents. To them I will always be their little girl, and they will always remember my hurts and weaknesses. I hope they remember my successes as well, but I can’t control the way they interpret and retell the past. Some of the worst hurts suffered by adults are the faulty stories their parents continue to tell, the versions of their children they insist on clinging to. Whenever I visit my mother (my father died years ago), I am vulnerable, still, to her interpretation of who I was back then and who I am now. She will always see me in a certain way and be unable to see me in other ways. Fortunately for me, my mother has a kind and loving version of history applied to me, and she’s proud of who I have become and what I do. But this is not the case for everyone. For some people, every visit to a parent reopens vicious wounds that have never quite healed.

My Relationship to My Peers

I grew up in a farming community where it was the norm to marry right out of high school and start having babies. Of course, quite a few people did not follow that script, but the script held power over all of us. And still, as adults who are years away from high school and college, we tend to be sensitive to where we stand in relation to our peers. Did I marry, and if so, did I marry “well”? Did I have children, or did that not happen for me? Do I have a job I enjoy and I’m proud to talk about when I run into someone who has known me since school days?

In some families, sibling rivalry can take much of the pleasure out of holiday gatherings. We are too busy comparing our jobs, our cars and homes, the accomplishments of our children, and on and on, to enjoy one another simply for being here. It doesn’t help if a sibling, parent, or other family member is compelled to mention someone else my age who has achieved some part of life I have not—such as marriage or pregnancy.

My Relationship to My Children, or Lack of Children

Our children come from us, or in some situations are adopted and nurtured by us—but they are their own persons. It’s not their job to perform so as to make us look wonderful in front of friends and family. And if they feel that kind of pressure, they will likely do just the opposite: act out in front of all the aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. Anything a child or teenager is sensitive about will become a more crucial issue when we add people and special meals and events. If anything, holiday celebrations are perfect opportunities to leave our kids alone and allow them whatever high or low profile they seek.

Holidays can be really painful for the person who has always wanted children but does not have them. Holiday commercials, events (religious or non-religious), movies, and songs stress family happiness—which is ironic, because many families are broken and in need and not terribly happy much of the time. It can be an excruciatingly lonely experience to be in church or at the long family table beside everyone else and their babies and children. Unfortunately, no one else can really tend this deep hurt of mine. Depending on how distraught I am—for instance, if I recently had a miscarriage—attending a big family gathering may not be the best thing for me. I’m a firm believer in alternative holiday plans, such as time away in some other, new place with a friend or two or just my spouse and me, if the family scene will be just too much to manage emotionally.

My Relationship to the Church

In just about every family gathering will be people who have no love for religion or who may even have a violent reaction to it. Families of mixed religions—such as Catholic husband and Jewish wife—will need to navigate complex schedules so that all can honor their faith. We need to be especially sensitive toward people who are depressed and anxious because it’s holiday time and their fears and unhappiness are amplified; talking cheerily of God’s love as if it magically fixes everything can make matters worse. In some families, religious traditions are front and center, but in other situations, I may need to reserve my faith practices for more private time. Perhaps I was brought up in a faith tradition but have landed somewhere else along the religious spectrum. I can’t expect others to provide what I need. Likewise, I cannot expect anyone and everyone to tag along to the Christmas Eve Mass with me.

These insights are certainly influenced by my age and the region in which I grew up. Feel free to add some wisdom from your particular situation.

Image by Marjory Collins, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Previous articleAnnunciation
Next articleAdvent Light
Vinita Hampton Wright
Vinita Hampton Wright edited books for 32 years, retiring in 2021. She has written various fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Dwelling Places and spirituality books Days of Deepening Friendship, The Art of Spiritual Writing, Small Simple Ways: An Ignatian Daybook for Healthy Spiritual Living, and, most recently, Set the World on Fire: A 4-Week Personal Retreat with the Female Doctors of the Church. Vinita is a spiritual director and continues to facilitate retreats and write fiction and nonfiction. She lives with her husband, two dogs, and a cat in Springdale, Arkansas.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Vinita for this fascinating holiday menu. Equally heartwarming are the replies and comments. Merry Christmas to all.

  2. I am grateful for Vanita’s article and the replies written in response to it. For me, the cross of Christmas is the reality that, after thirty-one years of marriage and four lovely adult children, my loved spouse has left me and is hell-bent on destroying our Catholic marriage. The demonic is at work. I believe there is an old tradition of placing a crucifix within the nativity crib. On the cross, our Saviour had no power, honour, status, or pleasure – yet he was at one with His Father as He forgave the world. If we hang with Christ on the cross this Christmas as we experience the effects of our fallen world, the joy of the Resurrection will be our balm on the wounds of life. Love overcomes evil. In our pain, we shall rejoice. The Lord has risen! Yes, Happy Christmas to one and all.

  3. Everybody always laments those who wanted children but could not have them. How a about we who always wanted to fall in love and get married. We are offered no sympathy, but believe me it is just as painful. Those of you who are married and in a loving relationship, be thankful for that. At least you have someone and you have the option to adopt. No one ever considers the plight of the unmarried person, perhaps thinking they wanted to remain single as a “vocation.” I have never thought of being single as a vocation; it is simply bad luck. Not because I am ugly or stupid or obnoxious. My life goal was not to have a forever career but to have a strong marriage with a Catholic man. Yes, I feel deprived and find it extremely hard to attend holiday gatherings where I’m the only person who is not married or attached and obtained that state so naturally and easily without even thinking about it.

    • Jean, thanks for your comment. I could not give adequate attention to the many situations that are difficult during the holidays, and you are right that the person without a family–or, particularly without a significant other–suffers much painful isolation during a time that focuses on family. Jesus made the point more than once that his “family” consisted of people following God’s ways–traditional ideas of “family” didn’t really apply. And when culture, whether general or religious, makes traditional family all-important, it’s easier to see why Jesus downplayed our ideas about family. I hope that, in the absence of a significant other, you can find community at least with people of like heart. And that you can do some courageous loving of others that transcends the real pain in your own heart. Love will always bear fruit, even love that feels like it costs more than we have. Grace and peace to you.

    • Hi Jean,
      Your comment caught my eye, so I had to reply. I come from a family of 5, 2 girls, 3 boys. Our middle brother, Matt was single, well liked by people, but never found the one who fit with him. When he had just turned 68 he met a gal on a dating site…met for coffee at McDonald’s one morning before work and it truly was love at first sight. He almost didn’t even stay to wait for her to come because he had been so discouraged by the ones he had met…..but how his life has changed.They celebrated their 6th anniversary this fall and are truly soulmates.

      I know you want it to be sooner rather than later, but someone said to me one time when I was wailing about wanting to meet someone NOW….maybe he’s not ready for you yet. When I met my husband several years later, that was exactly the case…he was not ready for me at that time.

      I hope this will give you a little reason to continue to hope…..this is the Advent of your life, perhaps.

      Blessings and all good,
      Mary

  4. Very true. I used to love Christmas, but now all my immediate family has passed, my son is angry at the church and has next to no contact with us, and my daughter does not want a relationship or a family (my son wanted a family, which broke up his long-term relationship as his girlfriend refused to consider having a family). For me, it is so very hard to be around those with grandchildren, as I desperately want them – I contribute to charities to help children and do all kinds of volunteer work, reasoning that I would spend that amount of time and money on my own grandchildren, if I had them, but it’s not the same and sometimes I can’t wait to be done with life. My husband still works and does not understand how I feel and refuses to even listen and there is no one else to talk to about this, as most of my friends are never married or unable to have children. The holidays are something to “get through,” while all I can see for myself is becoming older and more unable to do things, as so many people from church that we are close to have had occur, and right now we are helping my husband’s 85-year-old cousin, never married, with heart failure and little support system aside from us – it is like seeing into the future and it’s not pretty. I feel like there is only the past for me and no future in this world but I have to keep living until God decides otherwise. Acquaintances who have grandchildren unknowingly make me feel like I wish I was dead but I could never tell them not to talk about their understandable pride and joy in their family. I try to remind myself that I am not the only one and find those who need help (I’m not so pessimistic in person and I don’t think many people would suspect I feel this way – I’m known for always having a good sense of humor).

    • Hi Mary Jean and thank you for such honest and heartfelt sharing…it is not easy to share our pain with others. You are indeed carrying much pain in your heart and the holidays can be very difficult when we call to mind all that we have lost. Please know that you are not alone. Our Lord Jesus, who suffered beyond measure, is with you and you can join your suffering to his, knowing that he brings us the promise of new life. Our Blessed Mother, who suffered many sorrows, is also available to you for consolation, as are the saints, many of whom suffered greatly. Finally, at each celebration of the Eucharist, the People of God pray for all those in need, so you are being prayed for by people who do not even know you and whom you will never know. I highly encourage you to continue doing the volunteer work you are doing. The love and care you are showing to others is flowing from the compassion in your heart because you know what it means to carry pain. None of the above makes the pain disappear, but, with God’s grace, we find a way to not allow despair to get the upper hand because, through the Risen Christ, we believe that sin, suffering, and death do not get the last word. During this holiday season, I (along with others here on Ignatian Spirituality and at Loyola Press) will hold you in prayer in a special way, so that the comfort of the Holy Spirit will enshroud and fill you. Blessings and prayers. -joe

    • Mary Jean, there’s evidence in your own words that you are strong and compassionate. Those qualities are put to the test in times when we are especially sensitive to our diminishments and unrealized hopes. Please don’t hesitate to find the support you need–a counselor or therapist or empathetic priest/minister. Your losses and hurts are real, and, as a person made in God’s image and loved eternally, it is completely appropriate that you give attention to these significant wounds in your life. You may feel like it’s a season for giving up and resigning yourself–but it may well become a season of transformation and growth. Thank you for your courage and honesty in posting your reply. I know that you speak for a lot of people who find this time of year especially painful. I pray that God hold you close.

  5. Thank you so much for this beautiful reflection. I am forwarding it to family and friends. So much common sense in what you say Vinita. Have a blessed Christmas.

  6. You knocked it out park again Vanita.
    I was only child and didn’t like it. Blessed with 4 dauters, great spouses and 17 grands. I’m now at 81 absorbing the interaction of all. (Wife passed away in 2014).

    You inspire me and I’m sure others with your perceptions you pass to others with charism of writings.
    Godspeed

  7. One group left out of this compassionate discussion: those who have no family (I have outlived everyone close to me). It’s always a challenge to decide how to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I try to remember that not all families are ideal, and that I need to thank God for the blessings I have. What trips me up every time is the person who asks “Did you have a good Christmas?” Or worse: “How did you spend Christmas?”

    • I so resonate with this I was the only child of elderly parents, no siblings, partner, children. As I age I worry about my future – knowing I should trust God… I’ve good friends, but all with big families. I want to find a way to be grateful for what is, and not envious of others. At times the Church ‘seems’ to assume all belong to families. I could go on, but won’t. I will keep you in prayer, and ask for yours.

    • You’re right, Barbara–I did not address those without families, mainly because the focus was on existing relationships. I would love to see the Church return to the early church’s views about family and what it meant to be a Christ follower. The “norm” was not the “happy” traditional family that has, frankly, become an idol in our culture and even in the Church. And our unhealthy emphasis on individualism prevents us from forming community beyond blood relatives. The isolation felt by those who do not have family would not be nearly so sharp if we truly practiced community as Jesus described and if we resisted defining any configuration as “normal.” This is a great failure of today’s church. We can only work on it day to day and situation by situation. Last year, I had an open house on Christmas Day, for anyone who had nothing planned or who ended up alone and preferred some company. We had fourteen or fifteen people cycle through, sitting to have some food, visiting with others, staying for as little or as long as they wanted. That felt to me like a true Christmas celebration. Thanks for posting, Barbara–it’s always good to hear from you!

  8. Beautifully written and expressed. Absolutely true in every aspect. Christmas time for many brings a sense of sadness if alone even if you have friends. I remember a good friend, a devout Irish catholic, hating the season. She committed suicide prior to Christmas and I still grieve for her although it is many, many years ago. The hype we make of it supersedes the reality of many. As an aside, Vinita, your writings always touch me. You get to the heart of the matter. Thank you so much for all you do to touch the lives of many who may never write you. God’s blessings and a Holy and Blessed Christmas

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here