When the Holidays Feel Different

Dr. Audrey Davidheiser

Crosswalk Contributing Writer
Updated Nov 29, 2023
When the Holidays Feel Different

The best remedy for when the holidays veer from your expectations is to invite God’s presence. You may have unresolved issues with the Almighty, like why He allowed certain things to happen or why He didn’t intervene, but you can’t lose by drawing closer to this caring God.

The holidays are coming.

Whoop-de-do.

Maybe you’re approaching December with an extra dose of dread this year. You had expected one thing and yet, another happened. 

Or the opposite—you’d never have expected that you’d have to deal with this rotten reality.

Perhaps you found the one. Finally, someone who would slip that ring on your finger. You were ready to introduce him to the clan when somewhere along the way, things quit working and now you have to face prying relatives with their never-ending refrain: “When will you settle down?”

Or the opposite. Maybe you were already coupled up, content in marriage, until your spouse decided to divorce you. 

How are you supposed to welcome the most joyous season of all without the main person you’d been celebrating it with?

Many other scenarios can culminate in these same mixed feelings: you might have lost your precious pregnancy. Your family buried a loved one. Someone lost their job. Or house. The increasingly expensive cost of everything forced you to take on another job, running you ragged.

I empathize—because I know, to a degree, the pain you’re going through.

Christmas of 2018 went down like nothing I anticipated. Earlier that year, I kept sensing something significant was burgeoning. 

What would it be? Would my husband finally resign from his day job and pursue his calling? Would we be able to purchase our dream house? Move somewhere?

None of the above. John’s still holding down his full-time job even now and that dream house is still, well, a dream. Yet 2018 will forever live in infamy—at least for our family—because in the middle of the year, my father suddenly died. 

How could a heart attack kill a man who had been athletic all his life?

This rhetorical question is courtesy of my grief. You can’t see it, but I have a grieving part that’s shaking its head as I type. I can intuit how this part is still trying to pick up the pieces after the morbid twist to my life.

Despite this bombshell, however, my family cobbled our way to Christmas that year. 

May I suggest the same for you? No matter what, please refrain from canceling the holidays.

For one thing, Christmas is still about God’s generosity in willingly giving His only Son to save the entire world (John 3:16-17). This eternal truth is always worth observing irrespective of our current struggle.

Even when things are hard.

So what if this year’s celebration looks different? Do it anyway. 

Here is how:

Free to Choose

You may need to make intentional choices. For instance, are you emailing or mailing your people Christmas cards? Just family? Plus close friends? Don’t feel obligated to attend every function you’re invited to. It’s okay to set boundaries and say no. 

If inflation makes things tight, don’t feel ashamed if you can’t throw as lavish a party as bygone years. It’s also okay to skip brand-name items as gifts. Guess what? It’s perfectly fine to create handmade gifts (and maybe even sell them to the public—hello, extra income.) Even a greeting card, filled with your heartfelt sentiments about how much that individual means to you, is meaningful.

The point is to rest on what you can do. Picture the Lord saying about you what He once said about Mary of Bethany: “She did what she could” (Mark 14:8).

Do Things Differently

If, despite the unexpected circumstance, you choose to host a gathering, let’s reformulate the how. For instance, if your family suffered a loss this year, it may be useful to swap sayings like “celebrate the holidays” with “a low-key get-together.” Rather than decking the place so that every square inch radiates a festive feel, consider strategically positioning one or two Christmas ornaments or symbols of the season instead. 

There’s a reason beautifying your home with a sprinkling of celebratory touches is important. If you have children, do it for their sake—because is there any child who abhors Christmas? 

However, let’s be honest here. Decorating cheers up us adults too. Research shows that our brains respond positively to Christmas-themed images.

Acknowledge the Difference

I searched, researched, and prayed for what I could give my mother for Christmas 2018. My parents had been married for close to 42 years by the time the love of her life died. That was the first time in my life, as well as in Mama’s adult life, that he was absent for Christmas.

The gift had to be special because its job was to represent the special person who was my father. But I also shied away from objects that would’ve too easily tugged out yet more tears. 

Which is why, regardless of how elegant the gift looked, I eliminated poetry or any longing prose for my dad.

I finally settled on a Tiffany’s candleholder. 

So, for our Christmas dinner, we lit a taper candle and secured it in the crystal candleholder while the fourth chair remained conspicuously empty. John and I sat next to each other but across the table from us, Mama sat alone.

I remember glancing at the crystal and the sparkles it reflected under the chandelier. I remember the empty ache I felt inside. I also remember wishing things could’ve been different and that somehow, we could’ve saved my father’s life.

Don’t let your grief or sadness overshadow your Christmas—but you, too, have the permission to symbolize what’s different in your life this holiday season.

Careful with Continuing Bonds

We once believed—thanks to Sigmund Freud and pop culture—that once someone dies, that’s it. Ditch all attachment. Quit thinking about the departed. 

The psychology of loss and grief has since shifted from such a perspective. We now understand that the bond between the bereaved and the deceased will never vanish. After all, grief is the price we pay for love. 

Besides, how could we ever tunnel into our neurons, cherry-pick memories of our departed loved ones, and erase them?

Whether your loss feels very fresh or not, cherished memories of your loved one will forever be yours. 

Thank God.

However, the rise of psychics, mediums, and the occult also makes it necessary to include a word of warning: do not consult any of these whenever you’re missing your loved one. The Bible is very clear on the separation between our physical world and those who departed it. Under no circumstance are we to engage the spirit world through any spiritually murky channel (Leviticus 19:31).

A Caring God

There’s a reason the Bible forbids us from contacting the departed. 

Not because God is insecure about His role in our lives, but because the help He offers far exceeds any other. 

Notice the following: “Someone may say to you, ‘Let’s ask the mediums and those who consult the spirits of the dead. With their whisperings and mutterings, they will tell us what to do.’ But shouldn’t people ask God for guidance? Should the living seek guidance from the dead? Look to God’s instructions and teachings! People who contradict his word are completely in the dark” (Isaiah 8:19-20, NLT, emphasis added).

The best remedy for when the holidays veer from your expectations is to invite God’s presence. You may have unresolved issues with the Almighty, like why He allowed certain things to happen or why He didn’t intervene, but you can’t lose by drawing closer to this caring God.

After all, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18, ESV).

I wish you a peaceful and meaningful Christmas—no matter how your holiday looks this year.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Noah Benjamin

dr. audrey davidheiser bio photo

Audrey Davidheiser, PhD is a California licensed psychologist, certified Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist, and IFSI-approved clinical consultant. After founding and directing a counseling center for the Los Angeles Dream Center, she now devotes her practice to survivors of trauma—including spiritual abuse. If you need her advice, visit her on www.aimforbreakthrough.com and Instagram @DrAudreyD.