‘Tis’ the season to be jolly.’ Not always. For many, the season’s a downer.
Psychologists identify how anniversary dates can kick up mixed feelings. They call it the “Anniversary Effect.” This can apply specifically to dates of traumas. The syndrome may describe other annual events, like Christmas holidays. Then, many people inexplicably complain of feeling sad, irritable, anxious or emotionally shut down. What makes the phenomenon even more complicated, and especially at Christmas, is that the holidays are supposed to be a time to be happy and full of mirth, ready for fun. If we’re not feeling up, we might take it as a personal failure: ‘What’s wrong with me that I can’t get with it?’
Christmas anniversaries surface memories of the past. They remind us of the family and friends who are not here anymore for the festivities. It’s as if each new holiday adds fond recollections of past ones, but also invokes other feelings. An empty chair at the holiday table is a downer. I feel conflicting emotions during the holidays. Christmas is a mixture of the pleasure that I get from traditional music; being in church services and hearing the Christmas story; making holiday preparations in the kitchen; putting up the tree and catching up with family and friends. But, the empty chairs at the table staring at me remind me that this Christmas I will not see those with whom I shared the day in Christmas past. I’m sad about this.
Today, there’s a new wrinkle to the holidays. Because of the real dangers from COVOD-19 infections, many communities have established regimes that encourage, and in some instances legally require, social distancing. In many homes, there will be more empty chairs than ever before.
Having been through my first such rigorous social distancing at Thanksgiving, I don’t know if it will be any easier for me to emotionally manage Christmas.
We put up the Christmas tree last week. One set of lights that we had used for years –– a long string of various tiny colored bulbs –– had always made the tree especially festive. I plugged it in to test it. Nothing happened. That particular string was the kind where all other bulbs won’t light if only one bulb of the set is burned out. I suspect that during the holidays, for some of us, an absence of that one light in our lives that once made our own brighter, will leave us feeling we’re in the dark . . . but not completely.
We bought some new tree lights. With these, should one bulb fail, the others will continue to burn. We don’t simply replace the missing lights in our own lives, especially those special people who, like lights have illuminated our path for as many Christmases as we can remember. But we can meet them in the corridors of memory, not only as losses, but as gains. I can pick up the phone and call or zoom someone with whom I can confide. Then I will tell them a story of this person I’ve loved; best to tell some goofy recollections of them. They’ll be some laughter, and tears, too. It will be as if the missing light in the set has been partially restored.
The pandemic has narrowed the scope of my activities. I’m in my studio mostly. Spending so much time in the same place before the pandemic, would have had me feeling restless, eager to go somewhere, to get out of Dodge. I feel less that way now. My immediate surroundings have deepened in their significance to become a venue of discovery in ways they hadn’t before.
I’m learning how much little things mean. They can mean a lot, but I have to notice them first. In that regard, a friend of mine teased me about an essay I wrote recently about slugs. “I think you need to get a life, George.”
I see that differently. Because I noticed the slug’s trail (incidentally, I saw the trail at all because it reflected light), it assured me that indeed, I do have a life. I can find a whole new world in tiny slivers of light within inches from my feet. I get excited about things like that.
The winter solstice is upon us this week. It makes the nights around Christmas the darkest of the year. The dark nights will magnify the luminance of the stars and planets that are normally harder to see. During the solstice, they’ll appear to sparkle all the brighter for the pitch-black nights.
This year, for the first time in 800 years we will have a ‘Christmas Star’ as two planets align to create the ‘brightest star.’ Over the next two weeks Saturn and Jupiter will draw closer to each other until they appear to be just a tenth of a degree apart, the closest alignment since 1623. I like to think of this as divine sign for us; that the world in which we’ve felt so distanced from others will grow closer. By the way, the closer the two planets get to each other, the brighter they look.
For a while during the holidays, I will glance up into an endless black sky. I’ll see Jupiter and Saturn as though they were about to embrace each other. This is happening millions of light years away but optically, it’s as close as the impression it creates in my retinas.
Jesus once said he was the light of the world and if we followed him, we wouldn’t walk in darkness, but have the light of life. This is why I’m especially fond of the gentle way Quakers pray. They’ll say, “I will hold you in the light.”
As much of the light as I can see this Christmas, I wish to hold all of you in it.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.