Julie Lyles Carr: Ghosts of Christmas Past: 4 Strategies for the Holidays

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ghosts of Christmas Past: 4 Strategies for the Holidays

It doesn't pair well with visions of sugar plums, candy canes and stockings.

But the holidays can be a time of sadness, of loss, of depression for many people.

The traditions and highly recognizable signs of the season, those things we find so beloved, can also be the very things that trigger the darker emotions inside us.

As many of my readers know, my dad passed away this time last year, right in the heart of Christmas. Christmas carols that I had long treasured now played in mocking Muzak as we sat in the ICU waiting room. Frosty the Snowman window clings and garish tinsel seemed to sarcastically leer at me from the observation windows to my dad's room. I knew that these signs of the season had been placed there as an attempt to cheer up one of the most desperate places, but just as other events of those days seared themselves into my memory, so too did previously innocuous festive decor, imprinted dangerously with a traumatic and wrenching time.

And even if someone hasn't suffered loss or a move across the country or any other major life event shift specifically during the holidays, it is the decidedly marked sights and sounds of the holidays that can be a discordant herald to just how different things now are, now that things have changed, now that what was has passed, now that everything is seemingly different.

But, embraced well, the holidays can offer healing. There can be a soul salve in the season, a medicinal in the merry. Consider these four strategies when facing the holidays after major change or loss.

1. Hang on to Beloved Traditions

My brothers and I have long celebrated Christmas with our individual families, but for many years we have circled up to Oklahoma to also have a time of celebrating Christmas with my parents. One of the traditions from our childhoods that continued into our extended family celebrations is the reading of Luke 2, when the good doctor Luke records for us the events surrounding Jesus' birth (my youngest brother Dave always misread Mary's moniker as the 'espoused' wife Joseph as the 'exposed' wife of Joseph. It definitely brings a different perception to the recitation...). We're still doing that, my brother Rob and sometimes a collection of the grandkids reading the ancient story.

2. But Change Things Up

We had always traveled to Oklahoma either right before Christmas or immediately afterward, hitting north of the Red River when the holiday was in full swing. This year, we chose to circle up at Thanksgiving. We still had our gift exchange and sang a couple of carols. But we noshed on lasagna instead of some blow-out of a feast and we kept things simple and sweet. And because we were technically not deep into the Christmas season, it seemed to take some of the heaviness off the celebration. We hadn't been barraged with carols and decorations at that point and it gave us some breathing room.

Why change things up?  Because it is an intentional antidote to trying to hang on to something that has now transitioned.  We set ourselves up for muting the joy of the season when we compare it to what was, when we pine for what can't be.  A sentimental nostalgia is a beautiful sapor to the sugar that brings out the full flavor of the sweetness of the season.  But an overpowering essence of heartache borne of remorse and melancholy mutes what could be a curative combination.

3. Create a New Tradition to Honor What Was

I'm still working on exactly what this will be, but for now, I have a couple of little moments that I'll be honoring my dad in as we celebrate with our immediate family. I have a beautiful glass Space Shuttle ornament (yes, my dad actually was a rocket scientist and worked on the Shuttle program) that has even more significance on the tree this year. And we're having the kids actively talk about their favorite memories of him.  My niece Lucy was only a year old when my dad passed.  I can see a portion of our extended family celebration being a retelling of some of our favorite stories so that Lucy can remember him through our eyes.  And then there's the hilarious video we have of all the grandkids re-in-acting the Christmas story, complete with an accidental dropping of the doll in the role of Baby Jesus.  I have a feeling that that video, with its hilarious Big Bobby laugh track (our kids' grandfather name for my dad) will become a staple.

4. And Create a New Tradition to Honor What 'Now' Is

We're still feeling our way on this one as well, but I think changing our usual Christmas trip north to Thanksgiving week was a good start.  I have a couple of other ideas, but perhaps the greatest thing we can do to honor the now is to fully embrace the season.  My dad loved Christmas, loved when we all got together, loved the laughter and a house full of his people.  To muffle the full expression of the season, to damper the glee and limit the festivities and linger in the past would in no way honor what he taught us, what he loved to see.  To enjoy the now, to fully soak in it, is perhaps one of the greatest 'traditions' we can maintain through the changes, challenges and transitions in life.

Heading into the holidays this year has definitely had its moments of unexpected tears and fresh washes of loss.  But this has always been my favorite time of year and I won't relinquish it to gloom.  I won't allow the understandable emotion of missing my dad and the reliving of last year's difficult  memories to be morphed into an overall theme for Christmas.

I just won't.

Because, for not the least of reasons, my dad would be quite ticked at me if I did.

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