Holidays and Forced Happiness

Dec 26, 2020 | featured, Getting Past Your Breakup, grief, holidays

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Author, Attorney, Podcaster, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, and Creator of the World's Most Successful Breakup Program. 

  • Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
  • Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
  • Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
  • GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019) 

This is an edited transcript of the podcast Holiday Blues. I cleaned it up and inserted some sentences not on the podcast.   Find the YT version of the podcast here: https://youtu.be/-ASqnHDAGCw


There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. -Carl Jung

This blog’s popularity took off when someone asked me how to get through a post-breakup holiday. It seems as if the question triggered a lot of people going through the same thing and they came here to share and support. Holidays, after a loss, can be especially tough.  In a year of a pandemic, they can seem especially weird. 

The winter holiday season which now seems to last from before Halloween to mid-January is a holiday designed for profit and manufactured happiness. People who love the holidays don’t seem to get the pressure that the extended (again and again) time of the holidays puts on those who struggle with loss and grief. It’s as if they are totally oblivious to the suffering of those who might not be ting-ting-tingling about anything-a-ling. Part of being in the holiday spirit is SUPPOSED TO BE generosity and good will.  Why doesn’t it include empathy toward others for whom the holidays are more a curse than blessing?  Where is that good will? 

Holiday movies and specials seem to be non-reflective of our own experiences. And when we watch them, we think, “Something is wrong with me.” NOT “Something is wrong with the way this time of years is presented by retailers, marketers, film makers…” No one should be taking these movies or presentations that seriously. No one should be allowing corporate America or Hollywood to dictate what they should or should not be feeling.

Maybe some of us aren’t doing that at all. Maybe it’s our own memories we are falling back on. Maybe there are a few magical moments which did live up to the fairy-tale expectations and we want to have that, or something like that, every single year. Maybe we think back on some really good times during the holidays and wonder why this year is so lacking. Is it us? Maybe we’re the problem. 

Maybe we do have a few childhood (or even adult) memories where Christmas really was magical. We remember, as a small child, being fascinated by a neighbor’s ornament on the tree or hearing carols or iceskating with the family. We remember some year when we were small and how incredible everything seemed to us. Or the first year we had a boyfriend or girlfriend and received a gift. Each of us has some joyful memory that we can look back on and we hold out hope that one of those memories will re-enact itself this year. There is some holiday spirit we knew once upon a time and we wish, fervently, to have it back. Being able to connect to those memories can make everything worse. We know, intuitively and objectively, based upon our own good memories, that holiday magic, holiday comfort and joy can absolutely be true. But when it’s not here now, we wonder what has failed.  

I remember an elderly woman across the way had this incredible Christmas tree with “bubble” ornaments. My older brother was dating her granddaughter. The 3 of us were going to Midnight Mass.  I had just turned 5. 

It was snowing. On Christmas Eve. Just like in the movies.

I was all dressed up in a gorgeous red velvet dress, black patent leather Mary Janes and white stockings. My blonde ringlets cascaded out from the Santa stocking cap I had over my “chapel veil” (going to midnight mass). The grandmother came into the living room..she was a kindly “Aunt Bea” type with the apron on over her neatly pressed, dark, polka dot dress. She clutched her chest when she saw me, “You look so pretty!” she said. “Would you like some gingerbread cookies?”  I smiled and said, “Yes please…”

I sat in the front parlor alone, scooching down to the front of the chair so I didn’t wrinkle my dress. I stared at her bubble ornaments from Germany (where she was raised) and the other wonderful ornaments she had.  The bubble ornaments were magical. Just like in the movies.

She came out and gave me one of the gingerbread men she had baked. I ate it while watching the tree.  I have remembered that “Christmas moment,” that Christmas snapshot many, many times over the years. I remember that being what I equated Christmas with.  Those few minutes in front of that tree encapsulated what Christmas should be like. I have no memory of going to Midnight Mass or being AT Midnight Mass but I remember sitting in front of that tree. How weird is that? That was my Christmas memory. What made me feel the very best that Christmas Eve. 

Over the years of my childhood, I remembered a few years falling asleep to the glow of Christmas lights around our window and it seemed as if sugar plum fairies really did dance in our heads.  My mother used to buy blankets with satin trim and I remember rubbing the trim as a comfort thing and falling asleep under the Christmas lights. It was magical. Just like in the movies.

When I was a teenager I was in the Glee Club and we sang all over New York City. I remember singing “Carol of the Bells” in Grand Central Station in four part harmony and the wonderful song echoed through the halls and passersby smiled at us. To me, that was magical.  Just like in the movies.

I remember that same year, walking home after midnight mass on Christmas Eve in the snow now SHOUTING Carol of the Bells and doing a few rumpt da rumpt rumps for Drummer Boy (another song we did at Grand Central) and thinking it was a very postcard-y Christmas.  It was a magical time. Just like in the movies.

In my 30s, I remember going with some friends to see “It’s A Wonderful Life” on the big screen at an old revival movie house. We sat up in the balcony and it was as if we were in the same year as the film was made. We came out of the movie in great moods and stopped at the diner next door for hot chocolate. That seemed truly Christmas-y. I think we all have a few memories where we really can think back and understand that was the magic that is SUPPOSED to happen. That is how you’re supposed to feel.  Magical. Just like in the movies.

But to try to recreate that every year is impossible and we put undue pressure and unfair expectations on ourselves. Those memories and shining moments are few and far between, and they happen when you’re not preparing for them or hoping for them or wondering if they will ever come.

And we try to “forget” when it was less than perfect. The year after the Christmas where I went to midnight mass with my brother and his girlfriend, we went to morning mass and, in our rush out of the house, we didn’t pick up our toys and when we came home, half of them were in the garbage can. I remember turning the corner and seeing my new toys sticking up out of the garbage can. My mother had actually gone on one of her “clean-up rampages” on Christmas morning. I was 6 when this happened, and to this day I can’t really get my brain around this behavior.

Other years there were terrible family fights on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Many years Christmas was a thing I dreaded just because my family, despite all their elaborate gift-giving and decorating finesse, could be so bad at it. I loved when my mother and sister spent a lot of time before Christmas shopping and bringing home presents and sitting at the table helping them wrap. I loved the neighbors dropping by and decorating the tree. It was always my job to decorate the tree and hang the cards while they shopped. I loved it.

But many years some gigantic horror would go on, usually because of someone’s drinking, and one year my parents got into a huge argument because my father said he was mugged and they took his Christmas bonus and my mother insisted he had gotten into a fight and gambled it away. But we try to avoid thinking of those things. As kids we turn away and try to remember the good times. As adults we do this too.

And, so, if you are a normal human being, you do have a mix of memories. And if you’re not into it this year, you’ve endured the long stretch since before Halloween to the middle of January, and are now physically and emotionally fatigued. You might be very sensitive to what is going on (or pretending to go on). But remember, it’s only another few days and it’s OVER. You need to be as gentle as possible with yourself.

Retailers don’t care if you’re in the holiday spirit or not. They crank those stupid songs over and over again. They come in your face with Christmas trees on Columbus Day. They don’t even care if you don’t celebrate Christmas for religious or other reasons. They don’t care if you’ve have a death in your family. They don’t care. Which is one reason I avoid stores from the middle of November on. For the past few years I have not broken my personal vow to not shop in any store that displays Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving.

A few years ago, I needed moving supplies this year and walked into Home Depot and saw a line of Christmas trees. I checked the calendar and it was November 1st. I walked out. I went to Lowe’s. They did not have a line of trees. I bought hundreds of dollars worth of supplies there. To me it was a small, silent and probably not effective protest. But it made me feel better.

But it’s not just retailers. It’s also your friends and family trying to create a holiday atmosphere. You see happy families, happy couples and happy happy joy joy. You don’t stop to think that a lot of it is not real and that the holiday happiness is manufactured.

Happiness doesn’t come on a schedule. It comes when it comes. You don’t know when it’s coming and you don’t know that it’s coming. You can be blindsided by events and have a horrible holiday season when you had prepared for happiness and you could be dragged into the holiday season kicking and screaming and suddenly find yourself having a grand old time. You never know.

What is true is that retailers can’t dictate it and neither can friends and family. And those who try to force the happiness and the holiday are probably feeding themselves (and you) a big pack of lies.

My last holiday with my first husband was a total sham, and I don’t think we could have looked happier to the outside world. We always bought our Christmas tree early and we collected ornaments all year round and were very very particular about their placement on the tree. Our stockings were always hung by the chimney with care. Our house shouted Merry Christmas! and we had so many lights and decorations, it could probably be seen from another galaxy. We had a beautiful house and invited people over for our well-made desserts and drinks. The kids were gleeful and even the dog got in the act when he drank the spiked egg nog and got pretty drunk. There is nothing like a drunk Doberman for Christmas. He actually let us put the antlers on him in his inebriated state. Most other times he shook them off.  The kids were delighted. The dog was going to be massively hung over.

We lived in the city and had gotten close to most of our neighbors. We had swarms of people in our house and we went to others’ houses celebrating and caroling. Did I mention we went caroling? Oh yeah, all the Christmas stereotypes rolled into one gigantic holiday show.  It LOOKED magical, just like in the movies.

Only I was miserable.


I suspected he was cheating on me (he was) and I held it all together for our very young kids.

But the show must go on. And it did. From mid-November to mid-January.

Then I lost my job and my life became a horror show. we separated in February. I was a mess through April and May and then rebounded nicely in the summer with the help of friends, therapists, support groups and a new job. I was doing well. When September came, I filed for a divorce and a restraining order. But by early November, when I realized I was alone and my ex was now playing happy happy joy joy with someone else and would give our kids the Christmas I couldn’t, I swiftly fell apart. By Christmas Eve I was sincerely suicidal.

I’ve written, every year, about my first post-separation holiday on here. I wrote about how brutal it was for me, emotionally…and it was…but somehow I managed to survive it and many others.

Even after I survived the first post-separation holiday, Christmas has not always been easy. Many years I would cry myself to sleep on Christmas night after I had given the kids a pretty good Christmas.

I tried to instill in them traditions and a sense of family even though it was just the four of us. It was a lot of hard work. I did all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the buying and wrapping, and at times, it was very lonely.  It looked lovely but I was aching inside.

After that first year when I imagined their father giving them a Norman Rockwell Christmas, I insisted on the 4 of us sticking together on holidays no matter what.

In 1995, I had gone through a breakup that year, was working 3 jobs and barely had enough money to buy the kids some gifts and a holiday meal. In fact, we were too poor for a Christmas tree. I kept trying to find one that was not horrible and we could afford, but 3 different trips to the tree farms had us coming home empty. I couldn’t believe I couldn’t even give my kids a Christmas tree. I don’t ever remember being so sad. Not suicidal. Not devastated. But horribly sad to my very core.

On Christmas Eve the kids waited until the local tree stand closed and then they dragged home one of the remaining, unsold and unclaimed Christmas trees. It was a nice little tree. I don’t know why no one wanted it. But it was like us. We were a nice little family and no one wanted us.

So our little band of refugees took in another refugee. Nowadays the boys refer to it as the year we stole our Christmas tree. I prefer to think we took one that no one wanted. 🙂 My youngest son tried to decorate it and it kept falling out of its stand. He wound up leaning it against the wall. I felt so sorry for him and for us. After a few hours he had it decorated on 3 sides and we had a very strange, leaning tree. But we had a tree. And the next day we opened our tiny amount of presents and ate Christmas dinner and it was okay. Not fabulous. Not the best we ever had. But it was okay.

Right before summer, with the horror of that Christmas far behind me, I met Michael. That Christmas there were no economic woes. We had a new house, a big tree, and plenty of loot (as Calvin would say). We were a happy group and the difference from the year before was amazing.  It was big and happy and boisterous. Just like in the movies.

The year after that we took all the kids to California for Christmas and we had a huge Christmas every year as the families got bigger. A few years my kids have even done Christmas and I didn’t have to do anything but show up. Every year we celebrated in different places, California, Texas, Massachusetts, New York. We all showed up for each other. Because that is what we learned to do in the poor times, the tough times. Those times taught us something that none of us will ever forget.

But then in 2008 Michael got sick in September. This is one of the times when starting Christmas in October feels like punishment. Times like these – which many people go through – is why we should be more sensitive to the length of time we stretch out these holidays. When they’re painful, it’s not okay to make them as long as possible.   I wish that retailers and people who just LOVE the holidays, would get that.  It’s not always fun for everyone.  Let’s stop making them longer than they have to be. The holidays should go from Thanksgiving Day to New Year’s Day and that’s IT. That’s it.  Put a lid on any other time. It’s not necessary.

In 2008, Michael finished radiation right before Thanksgiving. Michael loved food, he loved to eat and Thanksgiving was like his holy day.  After meeting him, I had many more things on the table at Thanksgiving than I ever had before.  He had loved it and appreciated it. He would normally sit at the table long before food was ready and he would still be there long after everyone else was groaning about being overstuffed. Michael would spend the next few days devouring leftovers. 

In 2008 things had changed. It took me a while to get him to the table. I didn’t want him in his wheelchair. I wanted things to look normal, but he insisted on being in the wheelchair.

So I relented.

During appetizers, he suddenly jumped out of the wheelchair and into a chair. Then he sat there looking perplexed. Then,  due to the brain tumor, did a few strange things like eating things and then throwing them back into the bowl.

At one point he looked as if he was going to throw up on the table. We weren’t sure what to do. Then he got up and wandered around for a while and then went in the living room. I was torn about what to do. I didn’t want him getting sick at the table, but I didn’t want him sitting alone either.  I brought his plate into him. 

My son went in and sat with him. I wanted them both at the table, but I decided to let them be. I knew, in my heart of hearts, it was our last holiday season together. And no matter how much I wanted him to sit at the table, dammit, and be normal, dammit, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. No matter how much I willed it to.

My heart was once again sad during the holidays. And once again I was trying to power through the responsibilities and just get through it. 

One way I did it was to be grateful for the years I DID have good holidays, some even magical moments. I wanted those years to have meaning rather than just cause me pain because things were not like that THIS year. 

On Christmas my heart was breaking. I knew that the new year was going to take him from me and I couldn’t bring myself to even think about New Year’s. Inside I hated everything and everyone. And on Christmas night in 2008, for the first time in 13 years, I cried myself to sleep. I tried to be grateful for the 13 years I didn’t cry myself to sleep, but I was angry and lost and so so heartbroken. On Christmas Day and night, I couldn’t get to the gratitude. I just had to cry. And I did. 

But I learned, that year, through the holidays, that some days you need to grieve and other days you need to will yourself to be grateful for the times you weren’t grieving.  Good times ebb and flow.  Holidays are sometimes magical and sometimes they suck.  We have to get real about that. Some years they SUCK.

Michael died in August and in December 2009, we went to the Dominican Republic. The family vacation was what all of us needed after our ordeal. I was surprised I enjoyed myself as much as I did, but it was a special time alone with the kid and grandkids and I enjoyed it.

I did take some walks on the beach, alone, to think about him and my heart ached. It was my first Christmas without him. I spent some quiet time thinking about what he would say or do. I had my moments of incredible sorrow. But I also had a surprisingly wonderful time.

I think that, through all the ups and downs, I’ve been able to assign some meaning to the holiday season. I once heard that the holidays are good even if you don’t celebrate anything, even if you hate the commercialism, because they cause us to reflect on the recent years and we can mark the events of our lives by what the holiday said about us in each different year.

For me, they tell me that times have been bad and times have been good…and without the bad times, you would not appreciate the good.

Holidays are not about going over budget to give a gift or manufactured mirth. They’re about marking your life from one year to the next. The holidays should be a time of reflection and looking back on all your holidays, good and bad.

Not every year is fun for everyone. 2020 has been unfun for most of us.

Many years are not fun for anyone. So many people are having a hard time. It’s a time to reflect…to be sure your priorities are in order (you’re not punching or pepper spraying or yelling at anyone in the store)…and to know that no matter what your experience is this year, it is unique to this year and will change. And you will change. And if you have some self-determination, you will orchestrate and direct that change so that next year will be better, no matter what.

If this year is a hard year for you, remember that good times are coming and that life is a cycle and there WILL be good times ahead even if you can’t imagine them right now. Just take my word for it….

Hang in there. It’s almost over.

Peace to you all.

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