Why the Christmas Season Feels Tough in 2021

carrie rollwagen with a christmas tree

I’m a “Christmas person.” I love the trees and the lights and the Hallmark movies. But this year, although I’m still doing all those things, I feel really sad. It’s like a wave of depression hit me at Thanksgiving and hasn’t lifted, even though nothing in particular is “wrong.”

As a culture, I think we’re grieving the loss of what the past two years have taken from us. Some of that loss is literal — many of us have lost people we love. But even if you haven’t experienced death during the pandemic, you’ve still experienced loss. We’ve lost the comfort of our routines. We’ve lost the illusion that we know what the next day will bring. And we’ve lost our friends and communities, if not to physical distance, to the harder-to-bridge distance made by differences in political ideology.

Last Christmas, we were still (mostly) in lockdown. Things were strained and weird, but on some level, it still seemed possible that 2020 was just a cursed year, and everything would eventually go back to normal. We were still pre-election and, essentially, pre-vaccine. We were temporarily adapting our holiday traditions, hoping things would soon get better.

Things are better in some ways, but not all of them. The fabric of our communities, and of our families, is forever changed — whether it will be stronger or weaker remains to be seen, but signs certainly point to the latter. It feels like every one of us is either refusing to speak to someone because of their beliefs or behavior over the past two years, or is the one being shut out (maybe both).

The holiday season is revealing these factions and fractures and making them feel more permanent. We’re reminded of people we used to love (or at least tolerate) who we won’t be seeing this year. Last year, we hoped things would be fixed by this Christmas, and now we see that they aren’t. The tradition of the holidays reminds us strongly of how things used to be, and we miss it deeply.

So if things feel tougher for you this year, that’s because they are, and it might show up in weird ways, like fixating on one particular tradition, stressing more than usual about work, procrastinating buying gifts, or refusing to put up your Christmas tree or participate in any traditions at all, even if that’s unlike you.

I think there’s value in recognizing grief for what it is, because as gut-wrenching and tragic as grief can be, it has some predictable elements: denial and anger, sure, but also acceptance, reconstruction, and even hope. After all, the Christmas story isn’t about everything suddenly getting better — what we’re celebrating is the birth of hope, not the full manifestation of it, and it’s a hope that came into the world in the form of a wailing, weak, vulnerable baby.

A hope that’s born kicking and screaming, covered in donkey slobber and hay (or whatever’s in a manger) with a disgraced mom, a dad who everyone thinks is a fool, and a bunch of immigrants* and farm workers in attendance, sounds like just about the perfect metaphor for the Christmas of 2021. It’s not a Hallmark movie. But maybe it’s a little better suited to what we’re going through right now.

So this Christmas, instead of grand, impressive, perfect plans, I’m trying to practice having small hopes. Just little baby hopes. To see the twinkle lights as glimpses of light in the darkness, and the promise of a time when the light will be strong enough to see by. To see Christmas dinner as a sign that, one day, there will be a good reason to feast and celebrate. To see a family Zoom call as the promise of a time when we’ll be together in person again.

Let’s hold on for the birth of hope. It’s not going to look like we though it would. It probably wouldn’t survive one good donkey kick. But what we’ve got right now — and after all, it’s what Christmas is all about.

* I realize the wise men weren’t present at the manger. Go with me on this.

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