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Every Dec. 25, Jennifer Crawford, a pastry chef in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, has a rib-eye for breakfast, shared with whomever they happen to be with. Last year it was with their dog, Taga, who has since passed away. It’s one of their few holiday traditions, since the season is a complex time emotionally for Crawford – or at least not the solely joyful, upbeat celebration we’re socially groomed to expect.
“For a lot of years, I just kept to myself,” says Crawford, who associates the season with a time, decades ago, when their father fell ill and passed away. “My traditions were admittedly not great for a very long time – I was mostly wanting to be alone and drink.”
Though the holiday blues have long been a thing – a 2015 study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness determined 64 per cent of people are affected by depression and anxiety at this time of year, and 24 per cent say the season affects them a lot – the pandemic has compounded matters with added financial and emotional stresses and increased isolation.
“There’s an imperative to be happy around the holidays, which can be tough on people – any year,” Crawford says. “But it’s especially tough this year, with the losses people have experienced – of people they loved, of businesses, of plans for the future, of what they thought the holidays would look like. All of us are going through that this year, which is really weird to think about.”
Finding enjoyment in what has turned into a radically divergent festive season may require a change in perspective and personal priorities – something that has been happening for most of us over the course of the year anyway. Lowered expectations could lead to more joy.
“Happiness isn’t just about how great the things you’re doing are on a day-to-day basis,” says Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia. “Peoples’ emotional experiences depend on how what’s happening to them compares to their expectations.”
It’s easy to be bummed, for example, when you compare a small Christmas among your immediate household with the usual big feast attended by your extended family back home.
“Let yourself be disappointed,” Dunn says. “I don’t think people should feel guilty for feeling disappointment, but then say, ‘Okay, what can I do that I really care about?’”
She suggests we reorient ourselves to consider other peoples’ needs over satisfying our own wishes; placing more focus on the giving side of the season is more emotionally rewarding. “Roast that whole turkey with all the trimmings, package it up and bring it around to neighbours or seniors living on their own who might appreciate a home-cooked meal,” she says, adding that it’s a great way to get kids involved.
And because it’s not just the parties, gatherings and travel, but the planning of them that will be absent this year, it’s important to come up with things to look forward to. “Anticipation is a source of pleasure that we overlook,” Dunn says. To that end, her family is planning a summer trip – presuming it will be safe to travel again – with another family to a dude ranch as a Christmas present to themselves, and are getting their kids involved with coordinating details and activities in a shared Google doc.
Of course, many have turned to the kitchen for comfort this year – and holiday nostalgia has always been tightly connected to baked goods, in part because they’re generally shared.
“When I’m struggling to talk about things, or come up with the right words, I’ll bake the things I don’t know how to say – that’s been my main tradition over the holidays,” says Crawford, who has tried to create new traditions as an adult. “By sharing old recipes, we spend time with people we miss, and with the people we love now. We don’t get to think about that from day to day – that’s why the holidays are so hard. It strikes close to the bone.”
Readjusted expectations and a renewed appreciation for the time we do get to spend with the people who are important to us could help clear some holiday gloom.
But whether they’re deeply rooted or brought on by the pandemic, acknowledging that feelings other than holiday merriment exist – and are part of the experience – helps to process any negative emotions.
“This is a time to be extra compassionate with yourself and with others,” Crawford says. “The knowledge that you can be both sad and enjoy things makes it more possible to access meaningful feelings of hope and healing.”
Globe and Mail subscribers can register to join Julie Van Rosendaal on Sunday, Dec. 6, at 12 p.m. ET for an online family bake-along as she mixes up some classic holiday cookie recipes.