Put the happy back in Happy Holidays
My son loves holidays, or, as he calls them, celebrations. It doesn’t really matter what we’re celebrating —Halloween, the dog’s birthday, the Fourth of July — as long as there are decorations, he is a happy boy. I’ve been trying to hold him back and not put our Christmas placemats on the table yet, but as soon as the calendar clicks over to December, I will have to bring them up from the basement, and the tree, the lights, and all the rest will follow.
He is the kind of kid for whom the expression “happy holidays” was made. His Jewish friends have a menorah — can we get one, too? The solstice is the signal of the beginning of winter? Great! Let’s have some hot chocolate to celebrate.
Strangely enough, his excitement about the holidays does not extend to the mythical, and he remains stolidly agnostic about the existence of Santa Claus. “I think that’s you and Mommy,” he informed us a couple of years ago, “but I like to pretend that he’s real.” For him, the lights, the trees, and the family play time are much more important than any other considerations, like religious affiliation or even gifts.
This weekend we will go to a Christmas tree farm to select a tree and cut it down, because the selection and cutting are vital parts of the celebration. He will chatter nonstop about trees, nature, why pine trees stay green in winter, how long the tree will last in our house, and what Finny (our dog) will think about a tree suddenly appearing in the living room. After that, he will supervise the tree’s placement and watch as I string lights up on the rain gutters on the front of our house.
His happiness is straightforward and all-encompassing. His wish list is simple (the One Ring from Lord of the Rings). He will be as excited about sending gifts to his grandparents in New York and California as he is about receiving a box in return.
The holidays do not deliver the unalloyed joy of an almost-6-year-old to everyone, though. Instead of eagerly anticipating what comes next (Christmas, then New Year’s, then Valentine’s Day…), many struggle to face a world that brings no happiness or even relief. It is a cliché that the period from November to January places a great burden on the mental health of many; I Googled “holidays and depression” and got more than 99 million hits. As a result, we spend at least some of our energy during this time thinking about those who suffer and struggle with the added burden of holiday stress.
For many, the holidays are very much how Virginia Heffernan describes her depression. She says it came into her life “attached to heartbreak,” but that “it soon asserted its independence.” Depression might ride into anyone’s life attached to a botched Christmas turkey, a gift that the store does not have in stock, or any of the other holiday petty annoyances. But then it stays.
All too often we remember people once a year. On Thanksgiving we think of those who don’t have enough to eat, but they return to their invisibility the Friday after. On Veterans’ Day, we remember our servicemen and women, but they get crowded out by our Thanksgiving plans. On Valentine’s Day, husbands rush to florists for their annual binge of roses.
I’ve fought depression until I’m exhausted. I’ve spent time in hospitals and tried all the miracle drugs. Right now, my Christmas gift list is simple: Let’s all try to reach out to those who hurt.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
Rick Magee, a Bethel resident, is an English professor. His column appears monthly in Hearst Connecticut Media. Contact him at email@example.com