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When the Holidays Aren’t Everything You Hoped For

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That Christmas, the first one without my kids, the first one that I had to pack them up after opening gifts and send them off to visit their father, is one I will always remember. Especially the moment I sat on a wooden chair in a dimly lit hallway with the phone to my ear.

I was perched between a family gathering in the next room and my kid’s laughter funneling through the receiver. I couldn’t understand how I ended up here, the place of shattered dreams, of holiday disillusionment. It was as if I held the blueprint for a magical, memorable Christmas, but was unable to build anything tangible from it. At least my kids were laughing. That was some comfort, but inside I was still hurting and broken and numb.

When I think back to that Christmas, I see that although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had solid expectations about the way Christmas should be celebrated. I had deep-rooted ideals and heartfelt longings. My picture of the perfect Christmas was well defined. But it wasn’t until my expectations were shattered that I understood just how strongly I anchored my joy to those dreams.

And when I remember that young mom who was hurting in the hallway, I also realize something else about myself. There was a part of me that assumed that because every Christmas up until that time was fondly remembered, that all of my Christmases should be the same. There was a part of me that felt slighted because I was experiencing less than I thought I should. Honestly, the realization that I wasn’t immune to a difficult holiday season stung.

But the truth is we all hold some picture in our mind that captures the perfect Christmas experience. And it’s also true that our reality is likely to fall short of perfection.

My first “less than best” Christmas moment was in the aftermath of divorce. But there are so many other things that can create circumstances that make the holiday season difficult. Sometimes the struggle comes from a strained financial situation or tense family relationships. It could be a move to a part of the country that leaves you feeling isolated. Even the weather has the ability to unravel our image of a beautiful white Christmas.

But whichever way we arrive at our “less than best” holiday, it all comes down to loss. Either we experienced a loss prior to the season that taints the whole event, or something happens or doesn’t happen during the celebrations that leaves us wanting. We enter the season hopeful and expectant and end up deflated and disappointed.

However way we arrive at our “less than best” holiday [divorce, financial strain, a cross-country move], it all comes down to loss.

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So how can we lessen the blow, make the sting less stingy?

I found it helpful to consider three things as I moved past that first difficult Christmas. I did an honest reality check, I checked my motives, and I spent time redefining what a successful holiday celebration was to me.

There are things about our experiences we can control and some things we can’t. Taking some time to think through these before emotions escalate can be very helpful. My children were going to visit their father every Christmas Day after opening gifts at my house. I was not going to spend the afternoon with them in our pajamas and play with their toys all day as I wanted. But, I did have the morning. So, instead of focusing on the part I was missing, I decided to focus on the part I was given and created a new Christmas tradition. We started the day with a Christmas breakfast shared at a festive table. It was fun and special and supplied us with great memories. I had to make peace with the reality of my situation before I could move forward and create something wonderful.

It was also helpful to remind myself that sometimes I can get in my own way. I wish I could say that everything I choose to do for the holidays comes from a giving, gracious heart, but sometimes my motives are less heroic than that. Sometimes I want to make elaborate desserts to impress guests. Sometimes I want to buy the perfect gift, so I feel good about my ability to make others feel loved. Sometimes I just want things to go my way and not bend to others even though I know others have dreams about the way their holidays should play out too. A bit of soul searching and getting comfortable with the truth that it wasn’t all about me went a long way in creating space for others and alternate ways of doing things. So, with that in mind, I gave a lot of thought to my “must-haves.”

For me, creating a meaningful Christmas holiday required a handful of things:

  • I need some time with my kids, not all of the time. I can share the time I have with those I love and still have a great experience. This one has helped me a lot as they have married and share time with other parts of their family as well.
  • I enjoy tradition, and each year I include some activity that feels traditional and sentimental to me. I have changed this activity over the years. This is not a rigid ritual that if left unfulfilled, the whole of Christmas topples. Rather it is an activity that embodies the spirit of Christmas and is open-ended and flexible.
  • I flourish when preparations are completed in advance, and I can feel present and connected to the moments as they unfold. This means that I plan realistically and take my available time and energy into account.
  • I thrive when I slow it all down enough that my soul feels refreshed instead of depleted. Reading, reflective journaling, advent candles, and morning prayer keep me centered. This part of the Christmas season is really the most special to me. There is a gentle holiness to this season. When we connect with it, its sweet, restorative quality carries us through and leave us feeling loved, whole, and joyful.

I had to make peace with the reality of my situation before I could move forward and create something wonderful.

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If asked, I would agree that Christmas is about more than the food that is served, or the tree that is trimmed, or the gift that is given. Christmas is a time to remember, reflect, and rejoice in the gift of Jesus. This heartfelt gratitude spills over as generosity and compassion, kindness and care. Ultimately, I want to navigate the Christmas season with a benevolent heart, one that reflects the love and joy I have been given.

The pain I felt that first difficult Christmas was real. The loss I experienced was heavy. There is no denying the gravity of that situation. And you are not expected to deny the reality of your struggle either. But even though it was a Christmas I fumbled my way through, it was a Christmas that opened my eyes to what is important. It was a Christmas that turned out to be less than I had hoped for, but it has helped me more fully enjoy the others that have followed.


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You’ll love this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace LifeStop the Holiday Hustle: Celebrate More, Stress Less – 064

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Cherie spends her time overseeing her business, volunteering as a chaplain at the state hospital, writing for her blog, and speaking at women’s events. Cherie lives with her husband in Bow, NH and together they have four daughters, one grandson, and a grandchild, affectionately referred to as Baby Bird, arriving in July. She enjoys hiking, cooking, cello lessons, and creating beautiful spaces.

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