December 2015/January 2016

Holiday Cheer or Sneer?


By Karen Greenspan, PsyD


They’re coming: the holidays. Chanukah and Christmas are around the corner once again. Are you looking forward to this time of year with gleeful anticipation or do you want to hide under the covers until it’s all over? Perhaps you are like me and your experience is somewhere between these extremes?

Maybe because Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday, my parents did not make a big deal of it. We usually exchanged gifts unceremoniously on the first night and then lit the menorah if someone (usually me) took the initiative to dig out the wax from the previous year and remembered to say the prayer for eight nights. Growing up Jewish in a Christian neighborhood, Chanukah felt like the consolation prize to the much media hyped Christmas that my friends were celebrating. I grew up to be an adult observer of the holiday consumerism, making sure at this time of year to avoid the parking lot at the mall at all costs.

However it’s not my desire to completely ignore the holidays, especially when good friends invite me to their celebrations. Once in a while if I am in the mood, I will attend a Chanukah party, and some years ago, I started bringing dreidels and latkes to my Christian friends’ secret Santa parties. It is a way to participate and honor my heritage at the same time. It also makes me happy to see my friends’ eyes light up when I take the tinfoil off the tray of fried goodies! So, in my own way, I found a way to make the holidays more enjoyable and not feel left out or pressured to participate.

As a psychologist this time of year, I often hear from my clients about holiday experiences past and present. Some common themes are loss and grief and not getting along with family. Often our sessions are about how to deal with difficult feelings associated with the holidays as they arise. In general, I recommend learning to take time out of the holidays to care for oneself. This can take many forms, such as allowing yourself to decline an invitation to a stressful family function, to sitting in the car and centering oneself before entering the house. One can even learn to nurture oneself while sitting at the holiday dinner table: if Aunt Rose makes a comment that causes your heart to race and your face to flush, try resting your back against the dining chair and letting your eyes rest on something insignificant, and focus on that until the moment passes. If you are comfortable, take one or two deep breaths into your belly. Finally, if you need to get up and go to the bathroom to splash some water on your face and look in the mirror and remind yourself that you are an adult and can get in your car and go home anytime you want, that is ok too.

This time of year, stories we see in magazines and television and film may mislead us into feeling that we are not measuring up if our holidays are not as wonderful as what we see portrayed in the media. The reality is that for most people, the holidays can be a time of joy, stress, and sadness. Finding ways to care for ourselves in the midst of the holidays may be the best present of all.


Karen Greenspan, PsyD is a psychologist in private practice. To learn more, visit


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