The strange uncertainty of the recent presidential election, combined with the continuing isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, together threaten to darken the light of this year’s holiday season.
Yet despite the difficulties of 2020, our shared values and the community spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas can generate the feelings of gratitude, joy, and love that we need right now.
“When you are feeling unsure, it is helpful to be reminded of who you are and of those things about yourself and your community that are unchanging,” explains Catholic psychologist Margery Arnold. “In a pandemic it is easy to focus on what we do not currently have. When we celebrate holidays, we are reminded of all that we do have.”
Human beings do not like change, acknowledges Jennifer Dagarag, faith community nurse at St. Irenaeus Church in Cypress. But the holiday season provides the sense of normalcy we crave in the midst of the global crisis of COVID-19 and its far-ranging effects on our daily lives.
Most important, she says, holidays offer Catholics an exceptional opportunity to acknowledge our blessings. “The point of gratitude is to step back and realize what we have,” Dagarag says “I try to think ‘what is God trying to teach me today?’”
While the human brain is wired with a focus on negativity to keep us alive in times of danger, that bias can often lead to anxiety, Arnold says. Additional tension and worry aren’t things any of us need, especially right now.
“Gratitude is important because it helps to focus us on what we do have, on what is true and beautiful and good,” Arnold says. “When we have holidays or rituals that focus us on gratitude, we are able to override that bias to help our minds and hearts find a place of calm and peace.”
For most people, the holidays are warm, fuzzy times when we connect with family members and friends we don’t usually see, observes Katie Dawson, the diocesan director of parish evangelism and faith formation. Still, the holidays aren’t great for everyone and depression can be awful for many people this time of year.
“To have the repetition of tradition is very comforting,” Dawson says. “I may not know what I’m going to have for dinner tonight, but I can tell you exactly what’s on the menu for Thanksgiving.”
Allowing ourselves to grieve the people and circumstances we are missing from our ‘normal’ holiday celebrations is a good place to start as we begin planning the logistics and focus of this holiday season, Arnold recommends.
“Then, my suggestion would be to carve out some time in your isolation to meditate on the people you love and why they are important to you,” she says. “Each day use a couple of minutes to thank God for one person in your life who brings you love, joy, and other fruits of the Holy Spirit.
“If you take five minutes to focus on one person each day during Advent and leading up to Christmas, you will find it easier to celebrate in a creative, loving, and joyful way.”
Focusing ourselves and our families on appreciation and nurturing relationships with people important to us can add joy to our lives at the 2020 holidays, says Linda Gigliotti, health and wellness consultant to the Diocese of Orange.
Using family recipes that have meaning and tradition, decorating with family holiday heirlooms, and driving around to see Christmas lights are all ways to preserve holiday joy.
“Sending Christmas greetings is more important than ever this year,” Gigliotti says. “Our greetings don’t have to be expensive paper cards. It can be an electronic way to reach out and tell people how much we appreciate them.”
Rather than commiserating about how hard this year has been, Dagarag suggests, perhaps Catholic families can find special joy this season by getting back to basics with less-complicated holiday meals and streamlined gift-giving.
“Part of it is thinking outside of ourselves,” she says. “We can develop a spirit of love and generosity as we consider how many others are suffering.”
The added stress of the holiday season can mean that our healthy habits fall by the wayside, admits Gigliotti. “I suggest that we try to maintain regular, healthy meals – not forgetting about fruits and vegetables – and exercising daily.
“Studies show that when people get outside in areas that are new to them, walking for as little as 15 minutes and seeing their surroundings with fresh eyes, it can enhance our well-being.”
To generate positivity, her family members share one positive thing in their lives every night at dinnertime, Dagarag says, helping each other focus on gratitude, joy, and love for one another.
“Most of us still have a lot to be thankful for,” she notes. “We should be thanking God every day.”