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A candle burns during a service. Photograph by Angelia Sims of Angelia's Photography.

Photograph by Angelia Sims of Angelia's Photography

A candle burns during a service at St. Matthew Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Holiday blues. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

Holiday blues. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

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Sad at Christmas? Advice for coping with holiday blues

A UMC.org Feature by Joe Iovino*

In December, we watch “magical” Christmas movies, shop from stores promising a special season, and hear songs proclaiming this as “the most wonderful time of the year.” We feel pressure to be jolly, but sometimes we’re not.

If you or someone you love is struggling with the Christmas blues, you are not alone. Many people find the season difficult. To help you through what may be a challenging Christmas season, we sought sound advice from United Methodist pastors, counselors, and others.

Cindy Elrod of Care & Counseling Center of Georgia

Counselor Cindy Elrod advises us to be in touch with our feelings during the season. Photo courtesy of Cindy Elrod.

Accept feelings

Though you may feel like you are supposed to be merry, don’t force it. "You just can't be where you're not,” says retired United Methodist state correctional chaplain, The Rev. Ben Wright. “So if you feel down,” he continues, “feel down.” As he tells the members of the grief support group he facilitates in his United Methodist congregation, “When we acknowledge that we are down, it helps us.”

We ought to give others space to feel whatever they are feeling as well. United Methodist counselor Cindy Elrod cautions, “be in touch with your own anxiety that may surface when you are in the presence of someone who appears to be in distress, so that you are not trying to ‘fix’ them in order to ease your own distress.”

Manage expectations

There can be a lot of pressure to make Christmas perfect. Megan Forshey, program manager of Gilda’s Club Nashville, reminds us to, “try to let go of how things have always been or are supposed to be and allow this holiday to reflect your current reality.” If you are feeling blue, the goal of perfection can lead to stress or disappointment. Keep expectations realistic, and receive the season as it comes to you.

When supporting a friend though a difficult period, help keep the pressure low. Don’t push the “holiday spirit” upon your loved one. Give space and permission for them to cancel a day of shopping, or to initiate a deep conversation on a day you had planned for celebration.

The Rev. Dan Nigolian in a field chapel in Afghanistan.

The Rev. Daniel H. Nigolian of the United States Air Force (ret), stands in a field chapel in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Dan Nigolian.

Be selectively social

While everything in you may want to be alone, fight that urge sometimes. Retired United Methodist Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel H. Nigolian of the United States Air Force, encourages those who are struggling to “get with other people.” When serving those deployed far from family during the holidays, “Chaplains work very hard to provide fellowship opportunities for the troops whenever and wherever they happen to be,” Nigolian continues. Don’t feel obligated to attend every Christmas event, but make sure you make time to be with other people.

Nigolian also recommends others stay connected with those who are feeling blue during the holidays. “I always worry about the person who is alone,” he says. “I would stay with that person until relieved by someone close to him or her. I think it's that important.” So stick close and remember, not everything you do together needs to be Christmas related. Mundane chores like laundry and grocery shopping can be lonely times. Offer to help.

Care for the body

Physical factors such as fatigue and low blood sugar, can contribute to a sense of sadness. When feeling down, extra attention to your health is helpful. “Take care of yourself,” Forshey urges. “Adequate sleep, exercise, and good nutrition relieve stress, deter depression and improve self-esteem.” That doesn’t mean you have to avoid every Christmas cookie, but take care of your body.

Healthy habits are sometimes set aside during the holidays. When supporting one who is struggling, you can help by offering to go for a walk together or by making healthy eating choices. The disciplines of diet and exercise always seems a little easier with a partner. Be that partner.

Watch your language

Be mindful of times you talk to yourself in ways you would never speak to another. Thoughts like, “I should be over this by now,” or “I’m ruining Christmas for everyone,” add guilt, which exacerbates the sadness. Instead, look for things to celebrate. When you get yourself to go to that party, pat yourself on the back. When you turn down that third cup of eggnog, tell yourself how proud you are of your accomplishment. Be your own cheerleader.

Cindy Elrod reminds us also to be cognizant of what we say to others. “Avoid these phrases: ‘It’s Christmas! Catch the spirit!,’ ‘You’re just sad because you WANT to be sad!,’ ‘I know just how you feel.,’ or ‘If you really believed in the reason for the season, you wouldn't be sad.’” None of these is helpful. “Giving advice,” Elrod continues, “often results in the other person feeling minimized, dismissed, judged, or unheard.” Focus your attention on listening rather than talking during this time.

Candles with blue hue

Attending a special worship service can be healing. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications​.

Worship

While typical Christmas worship services and programs may not be appealing to you, many churches offer special Blue Christmas or Longest Night worship gatherings. Churches design these services to offer those in attendance the hope of Christmas even while feeling a sense of sadness.

Joyce Kieffer has been planning "Blue Christmas: A Service of Hope" for Community United Methodist Church of New Cumberland, PA for ten years. The service, followed by a time of prayer and fellowship, has been valuable to those participating. "The Blue Christmas service gives people a place to validate their sadness, and to find kindred spirits," she says, in others who are also sad. This year, she continued, "people stayed and stayed. Talking to each other. They didn't want to leave, but needed time to linger and relax."

To find a United Methodist church near you offering special worship gatherings, use Find-A-Church to check websites and other contact information for congregations in your area. Then, invite someone to join you for worship. Both of you will find comfort, healing, and peace during what is often a hectic season.

It is unrealistic to expect you or your loved ones to feel better simply because it is the season to be jolly. Be intentional in addressing the sadness. Although it may not feel like the most wonderful time of the year, the event we are celebrating – “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14 CEB) – reminds us that Jesus is near, even when we are feeling down.

This story was first published on December 4, 2014.
*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. He may be reached at jiovino@umcom.org or 615.312.3733.