When the Holidays Aren’t Happy

Recently I spoke to a group of several hundred people who openly admitted they dread the holidays. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas isn’t the favorite for a lot of people. I’ve read there is more alcohol consumption, more domestic fights, more arrests, more suicides and more people battling depression during the holidays than any other time of year.

During December, pastors and church leaders are likely to encounter people for whom the “hap, hap, happiest time of the year” becomes the gloomiest time of the year. I hope my list of the top five reasons that holidays are so difficult—and ways to deal with them—will help you encourage and console them.

The Five Stressors

My list of the top five reasons holidays are difficult includes:

1. Bad memories. Some had poor childhood experiences: Dad got drunk, Mom was stressed out, they never got presents they hoped for or their visit to Grandma’s house wasn’t any fun. Embedded childhood memories subconsciously surface during the holidays.

2. Overcommitment. There’s just too much to do. This is especially a problem for mothers of young children, as well as homemakers.

3. Financial pressure. People spend more than they can afford so their kids will have a Merry Christmas. Then they feel guilty about overspending or discouraged because the credit card bills come in January.

4. The empty chair. Some folks used to enjoy the season with loved ones. But now someone who meant the world to them has died. The kids moved away. A child is in the military overseas. The person is single and not by choice. There is a gnawing loneliness.

5. Unrealistic expectations. Television ads and Hallmark cards create an image of a warm, family-centered Christmas. Everyone is exchanging gifts of love, smiling and hugging, the snow is gently falling, and the fireplace is aglow.

Reality is not like these fantasy images. People are alone. Some families are divided. Dad won’t help out with the lights. Mom nags. Kids complain. There are harsh words. Or we have to walk on eggshells because of someone’s sensitive feelings. There’s such a gap between what should be and what is, which is magnified at Christmas.

The First Christmas

We would do well to remember the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph faced the stress of finding a place to stay. They spent the night in a stable. Their child was born without any professional medical care, anesthesia or sterile conditions. This must have been a far cry from what Mary had imagined that day when Gabriel informed her she was going to give birth to the Son of God.

I closed my talk by offering some practical ways to get through the holidays with a positive spirit. They include:

  • Plan something you really like to do the day after.
  • Do something to help someone else and fake it ‘til you make it.
  • Be flexible; make reasonable adjustments.
  • The most important is to really focus on Christ—on what the season is all about.

Thanks for the Gift

Dr. Bob Fife, Milligan College professor, relates that when he was a 20-year-old boy he was a soldier fighting his way through Western Europe. On Christmas Eve, his small contingent bunked down in an old barn outside Paris. That night he felt sorry for himself. He thought, “Fife, this is as low as it gets. … This year, I’m thousands of miles from home, alone in a cold barn, and I don’t know if I’ll live through tomorrow. It can’t get much worse than this.”

Then it hit him. That’s what the first Christmas was like. Jesus left His comfortable home in heaven and spent His first night in a cold barn, subject to all kinds of dangers. That Christmas Eve in France became one of the most memorable of Bob Fife’s life as he thanked God and developed a deeper appreciation of what Jesus did for him.

The holidays aren’t about perfect relationships, joy-bells ting-a-linging and warm hugs around a perfect dinner table. It’s giving genuine thanks for this marvelous, incredible story: that God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. That is a message that is worth emphasizing, both during sermons and personal counseling, at this time of year.  

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bobrussell@churchleaders.com'
At just twenty-two years of age, Bob became the pastor of Southeast Christian Church. That small congregation of 120 members became one of the largest churches in America, with 18,000 people attending the four worship services every weekend in 2006 when Bob retired. Now through Bob Russell Ministries, Bob continues to preach at churches & conferences throughout the United States, provide guidance for church leadership, mentor other ministers and author Bible study videos for use in small groups.