I come from a Christmas-crazy family—there’s no other way to put it. Most years, I look forward to sharing my family’s holiday traditions with my two daughters, Sophie and Juliette. We start decorating and baking as soon as we throw out the jack-o’-lanterns. We relish buying special, thoughtful gifts for one another. And we watch holiday movies on a loop for a solid three months before Christmas (during the rest of the year, we just watch them sporadically).
I have seen Prancer, One Magic Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street—my favourite holiday films—50 times easily and I never tire of them. Until this year.
For the first time, I noticed a strange similarity between the movies and it made me look at them differently. In every one of these flicks, the parents are lacking Christmas cheer. The kids—who are meant to be the heroes—easily see the magic of the holidays and it falls on them to change their moms’ and dads’ views on the season. That might mean nursing Prancer back to health, getting Mom to finally mail a letter to the North Pole or proving that Santa really does exist.
In each of these movies, the parents face significant hardships. In Prancer, the dad has just lost his wife and is facing serious financial difficulties. In One Magic Christmas, the mom is working long hours and is being forced to move out of a house that belongs to her husband’s former company just days before Christmas. In Miracle on 34th Street, the single mom (with a demanding career that’s out of character for the 1940s, when the movie was made) is trying to raise her daughter to not believe in magic. By the end of each movie, the parents are healed of whatever is hurting them and miraculously have their Christmas cheer restored. It’s happily ever after, of course, but that’s not usually what happens in real life.
I’ve been these sad parents, just trying to keep it together. Last year, after one of the worst years of my life, I don’t think I managed to find a shred of true joy. Wanting my girls to have the special memories I have, I went through the motions, baked the cookies and wrapped the presents, but it was a blue Christmas for me, which is a shame given the amount of work it took. I couldn’t wait to take the decorations down and start afresh in January. I felt guilty about it, and I worried that it was how I’d feel about the holidays from then on.
Things improved over the months that followed in many ways, and much of that came down to finally asking for help. My husband, Blaine, and I made major decisions and changes in our family life with the aim of making things easier and less stressful. It was a gamble, but it worked, and the stress of last year has eased considerably.
That makes things rosier this Christmas, but I still don’t feel like my cheer-o-meter is at full capacity. I feel lighter and happier than I did in 2016, but I’m not sure I’ll ever really get back to the true joy of my youth. And I think that’s OK—maybe we aren’t supposed to. Instead, I relish the joy of my children and their delight in the experiences that Blaine and I have created for them (tree decorating, our annual road trip to Northern Ontario to visit Blaine’s family, our Peanuts Christmas movie night and even our Polar Express train ride this weekend!).
But if there is one thing I learned last year, it’s that dog paddling in the deep end of the holidays is a lonely, scary place. I wish that I’d reached out to others sooner. I wish that I’d told people I was struggling. I didn’t, and it took that much longer to get myself to a better place.
I know it isn’t easy, but if you’re struggling, here’s some advice from someone who has been there. Phone a friend and tell her what you need. If you can’t face a mall, ask a pal with holiday cheer to spare if she can pick up a gift or two for you in her shopping travels. Just buy the damn cookies instead of making them. Put up only the decorations you can muster the energy for and try not to feel guilty about it. And if you feel like your mood goes deeper than holiday malaise, make an appointment to see your doc. This year, I hauled out only those decorations that bring me joy and didn’t worry about the boxes that went unopened. And you know what? That’s OK!
I can’t promise Hollywood happy endings in your search for Christmas cheer, but I can assure you that taking it easy on yourself will probably improve your outlook. And, seriously, pick up the phone and call someone—if it’s not the season for that, I don’t know when is.
This article was originally published online in December 2017.