By Diana Creel Elarde

The soft snow swirled around our feet as we crossed the plaza, creating the feel of walking in clouds. It was nearly dusk and the glowing luminarias had just started to light up on the buildings around us. We stopped for a moment to catch the magic they have created. It was Christmas Eve in Santa Fe, New Mexico, our first holiday season without our young adult children. Both of them had opportunities to create their own memories in different countries. My husband and I knew this day would come, though perhaps not as soon as it did. It left us with the burning question – what do we now do to create our own new, special holiday memories?

I had long heard of the magic of Santa Fe on Christmas Eve and hoped it would be a good diversion during our “alone” holiday season. It did not disappoint. Around the stylish old town steeped in tradition, the holiday season was in full swing, with decorations on the old plaza, silvery lights in every tree, brightly lit shops and the energy of shoppers and tourists. Within the mysterious wonder of the Loretto Chapel, we heard lovely voices singing the praise of the season. The choir loft stairway within the chapel is an engineering miracle, built by the hands of an unknown gentle carpenter, so the legend goes.

After dusk, we headed over to Canyon Road, a haven for artists and shops, which on Christmas Eve is particularly alive with people and celebration. The galleries and restaurants had opened their doors and spread out onto patios and sidewalks, serving hot drinks around small bonfires of fragrant pinion wood. Caroling seemed to happen spontaneously, and complete strangers invited us to join in their festive celebration. At the end of Canyon Road, there was a quiet world, with only the lights of the luminarias dancing along the top of the pueblo-styled homes. Luminarias (or farolitos as they are also called) are very much a part of New Mexican culture. Small paper bags with votive candles in them, luminarias were used to light paths so people could find their way to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Today they remain a peaceful reflective blend of old customs with new.

Luminaries in Santa Fe

Perhaps we didn’t need to travel so far to escape what I was predicting to be a “blue” holiday season to create a new way to celebrate on our own. But that memory of such a magical night has always stayed with me and encouraged me to add the unique beauty of luminarias outside our home every holiday season. They remind me that we can always continue to expand our holiday memories and create new ones.

No Absolutes!

There are many reasons why people may feel a bit blue during the holiday seasons. The season can be filled with ambiguous feelings; especially during those times when practicing our tried and true traditions no longer seems like a desirable option. Perhaps it is a holiday without close family, or one with the challenge of celebrating after the passing of a loved one. The fact is, holidays can bring out those intense feelings of being on our own, unconnected, or not celebrating the way we THINK the holiday should go.

Many times, what we think of as expectations are just stories we tell ourselves, sometimes unrealistic for the current situation. Cognitive psychologists would suggest we become aware of our self-talk, what are we saying to ourselves and even others. This self-talk is often rooted in “absolutes”, statements containing words like always, never, everybody, nobody. Absolutes are where many people get themselves into a depressed mood. Statements such as:

  • I will always be alone
  • People will always think less of me if I am alone
  • It will never be like it used to be, so it doesn’t matter if I celebrate or not
  • If my family truly loved me they would celebrate MY traditions not new ones

The storylines can go on and on, leaving us many times painted into a corner without options. As much as I admire my mother’s great success at improving her life in her 90’s, her insistence that holidays be in a particular place or with certain people clashes many times with the extended family which now exists in our lives. And while family members want to accommodate, sometimes we have to give some to get some. In addition, we may need to consciously endeavor to check our self-talk. While it may be true that THIS year we might be alone, this does not have to dictate our lives or become a self-proclaimed prophecy of every future holiday. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how can I gracefully move through the holiday season, with more gratitude than attitude!

Other ways we can “sabotage” our holiday season might be:

  • Unrealistic expectations – We watch TV specials about families together, all getting along with abounding joy and laughter, and we compare our actual family gatherings with this unrealistic depiction.
  • Exhaustion – For weeks on end we plan menus, search for presents, wrap and send gifts to others out of state. We push through dates and deadlines leaving ourselves very little downtime.
  • Over-indulge – We eat food out of our normal realm and tend to drink more at gatherings, eventually feeling lethargic and heavy.
  • Financial stress – Many times people don’t plan on what they can spend or make a list of possible items to purchase, then make last-minute choices, placing an unneeded burden on their financial situation
  • The “first” holiday season – When a spouse is no longer with us due to death or a divorce, or the kids can’t make the trip, or living in a new city without friends or family close.  
  • Not forward-focused – on new ways to celebrate, instead stuck in the past with an “it will never be the same again” attitude

Plan Ahead

A bit of advance planning might help you avoid falling into the world of unrealistic expectations. Many times we think our world will magically flow to the holiday we want and expect, and then disappointment settles in when that doesn’t occur. The fact is, it might take a bit of proactiveness on our part to avoid the pit of despair.

technology, people, lifestyle and communication concept - happy senior man dialing phone number and calling on smartphone at home

Travel to a new place (or an old favorite) could certainly be something to consider. With the advent of such apps as Air BNB and HomeAway, you don’t have to spend your holiday in a small hotel room void of the furnishings of a home. These apps and others like them give you the option of renting a furnished home or condo. And to make sure it is true to the holiday season, rent a space with a fireplace included!

Exploring through travel sites such as Trip Advisor can help you find activities and restaurants which will be available for you on your trip. Gone are the days of trying to determine will I find the meal I want on Christmas when at your fingertips you can find those answers. Make sure to explore what might make the place of visit special during the holiday season. Are there traditions, ceremonies or celebrations at your travel destination which you could attend?  A special choir, bell ringers or even seeing the zoo lights, a special display among the animals, could be possibilities. What might you find that would broaden your perspective of how to celebrate the season?

If traveling is not on the agenda, what more can you do to help ward off the blues and still feel like you are celebrating the season?

  • Giving back – Is there a local charity that would appreciate your volunteering to help at a soup kitchen or a food pantry? Small acts of kindness are known to improve your mood.
  • Get to know the neighbors – For years one of our neighbors had a Thanksgiving brunch, inviting us for coffee, rolls and egg dishes. It was a wonderful way to interact and get to know others who live close
  • Local events to engage with – One of our favorite activities, with or without the kids in tow, is visiting neighborhoods that light up the night with special décor and displays. In many communities, you can find events such as bell ringing ceremonies or choir performances.
  • Line up old friends to call – Spend a few hours calling people you might not get to engage with on a weekly or monthly time basis. If they don’t have time to talk, perhaps set a time to “talk-together” after the holiday rush is finished.
  • Do something you enjoy – If you love to bake, then bake. Or maybe a quiet reflective walk thinking about the positive things in your life, or find that book you have been longing to read.
  • Cook – or do for you first, and then look to invite others for the delights you have created.

The First Alone

The first holiday after a death of a loved one is at best complicated. What to do about traditions shared through the years, or how to grieve during these days can be a dilemma. Even the question do we mention and or talk about the person who has passed can cause stress within a family or group of friends. We tend to feel the acuteness of the loss during the holiday season, sometimes referred to as “the empty chair”, our loved one no longer there.

Psychologists would tell us it is healthier to acknowledge “the empty chair”, rather than trying to avoid it. The tension of not talking about the person no longer there or trying to artificially make sure everyone stays in a state of cheer, is not only unrealistic but unhealthy as well. Most people judge themselves through their grief, trying to understand expectations and feelings they THINK they should have. The added burden of everyone tip-toeing around the elephant in the room does nothing to help a person in grief or to reduce the tension. What might be helpful:

  • Ask in advance about sharing a story or acknowledging the departed person
  • Provide an avenue for an honoring – respectful, funny or memorable stories about the departed person
  • Make a favorite dish that person might have enjoyed
  • Include a before or after dinner toast to the departed person, either over wine, eggnog or even hot chocolate.
  • Allow the tears. A small pat on the back and an expression of grief goes a long way.
  • Honor the person with a donation in their name to a charity they might have supported.
  • Do not judge yourself or a person who needs a bit of quiet time and separates from a gathering.

Finding Help

In 2017, after the passing of a close friend of mine, his spouse started to see a counselor to help him through the holiday season. Not only did the counselor help him to sort through feelings of grief, but he also had excellent advice on how to work through the holiday period. What traditions could he keep, which ones no longer worked and what did he really want to create during the holiday season. For him, as a manager in retail, covering more hours so his employees could spend time with their family was a gesture he found rewarding. The extent of appreciation and gratitude from employees helped him to fill a void. And it brought him closer to the employees on his team. Sometimes new traditions might even be extended to your work.

Two persons in love hold their hands on the wooden table, close up image

When we weigh ourselves down with unrealistic expectations, or cannot find the answers on our own, seeking advice from a professional or even a grief group might be a good choice. While it may be hard to admit we might need assistance, the fact that knowing others have shared our road is a powerful reminder that we don’t have to walk alone. And perhaps an idea or two from a group or counselor might help us create new traditions for our holidays.

This year, my husband and I will be fortunate to have our family with us. Some will be traveling long distances on Christmas Eve, making the journey to share our celebration. As for me, on that eve I will set out luminarias around our home, illuminating the night with their light. And there they remain until midnight. Their light, not only providing a symbolic path for the loved ones we wait for, but for the so many people on our earth who long for hope and guidance from a peaceful light.

New Holidays copyright DElarde, 2018

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