For every person that turns up the volume whenever their local station starts playing Christmas songs, there’s another that instantly turns off the radio. For this second type of human being, the holidays are neither wonderful nor magical but an inescapable confrontation with all the negative emotions that have been building up inside them over the past eleven months. We may know this as Christmas Blues.
“All I want for Christmas,” Marissa Miller confessed in the New York Times, “is a nap.” In her 2019 article, “Yes, It’s O.K. to Be Sad During the Holidays,” she tries to explain why Christmas is so effective at eliciting feelings of hopelessness and melancholy, and also offers tips on how to avoid falling prey to a bad case of “Christmas Blues.”
Miller interviews a number of experts, each of whom provides a different piece of the puzzle. Psychiatrist Judith Orloff blames the holiday’s commercially motivated insistence on being cheerful, which often has the opposite result. “Forced happiness makes us feel sad, upset and lonely because we are faking our feelings,” she says. “Putting on a false front to impress others or prove to them how fine we really are can make us feel like a total imposter.”
Lane Moore, a comedian and the author of a book titled How to be Alone, suggests that Christmas, rather than inspiring us to be grateful for what we have, serves to remind us of what we lack. A wholesome holiday film might make viewers conscious of their own family’s dysfunction, while an empty chair at the dinner table inevitably calls attention to the person that used to sit there.
Others place less emphasis on Christmas itself and more on the time of year when it falls. Seasonal affective disorder, commonly referred to as seasonal depression, tends to kick in during the fall months, and often lasts until spring. In winter, reduced levels of sunlight upset the circadian rhythm and deplete one’s serotonin levels, leading to an increase in moodiness that often reaches a crescendo around the ever-so hectic holidays.
The origins of Christmas Blues
Because our society’s understanding of (and way of talking about) mental illness changes so rapidly, it’s hard to say how long Christmas Blues has been around. One of the earliest mentions of this term specifically is from a 1985 New York Times article with the heading, “Countering Depression During Holidays.”
The article follows one Dr. Myrna M. Weissman, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine, who is alarmed by the number of housewives that succumbed under the mounting pressures of the holiday season each year. Weissman recalls how, on Christmas eve, she received a call from “a woman in despair.” The woman was in tears because her in-laws had arrived with a 10-pound bag of shrimp. Being a housewife, the family had determined it was her responsibility to clean, cook, and serve the shrimp, an unexpectedly Herculean task that, in this case, seemed to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“The woman felt sad and angry,” Weissman told the reporter. “She did not see the shrimp as a gift, but rather as an unfair expectation, by her in-laws, of her role as homemaker.” In the not so distant past, many American housewives suffered from depression and anxiety as a result of these confining gender norms – norms which the holidays can resurrect. “There are great expectations of a lot of food, gifts and festivities,” Weissman adds, touching on a similar subject, “and people in the media who portray this are always beautiful and skinny. It is difficult to measure up materially, physically or socially.”
The Christmas suicide myth
Bleak as this article may seem, it does end on a positive note. Based on her work at the Depression Research Unit at Yale, Weissman assures readers that no matter how taxing the holidays may be, the stress and anxiety they inspire usually fade away once Christmas has passed.
This little detail helps dispel a persistent myth about Christmas, namely that the celebrations go hand in hand with a spike in suicide rates. Far from it, actually. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the last two months of the year also have the lowest suicide rate, presumably because family gatherings prevent or at least delay many attempts.
Instead, the real seasonal spike happens in January, mostly on or shortly after New Year’s Day. Researchers cannot be exactly sure why this is, but there are many convincing hypotheses. One of those is the “broken promise effect,” or the idea that, at this time of year, people tend to become fixated on last year’s disappointments, including holiday celebrations that didn’t quite live up to their promise.
Although Christmas Blues affects some individuals more than others, almost everyone experiences at least some degree of negative emotion during the holidays, whether it’s caused by things like the stress of preparing elaborate gatherings or the frustration of watching friends and family members refusing to get along.
Sometimes, as Weissman mentioned, the problem lies with ourselves and our own unrealistic expectations. This dilemma is placed front and center in many holiday movies, including National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which revolves around a disillusioned, workaholic father who tries — and fails — to recapture the wonder he felt when he celebrated Christmas as a little boy.