All of us will be greeted with the phrase “Happy Holidays” sometime soon, if we haven’t been already. But I realized long ago that in my profession, this is the mean season. 

As a psychologist in private practice I have noticed that the period of time from the Jewish New Year in September through Easter/Passover is more or less a mental health minefield, with Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s Day having major potential for casualties along the way. There are many reasons for this, but three are most important are family, expectations and memories.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s all about “family,” and many people say it’s their favorite. For lots of others, though,it can be gruesome. Old family dramas seem revived within seconds, reminding us of unpleasant feelings left wisely unexplored the rest of the year, reigniting rivalries and conflicts as easily as the candles are lit around the table. Many times we have to come from far away, at great expense, under insane travel conditions to a less than glamorous location. Often, distant relatives are present that we would under no other circumstances see or care to visit, and there is an oppressive demand to be cheerful and happy about all this. Work is always divided unfairly, those doing too much resentful, those doing too little feeling guilty and slothful (some do, at least).

Things are never quite as they should be, at least, and our expectations usually lead to trouble during the holidays. The more we idealize them, the farther we have to fall. This problem is most troublesome in relation to New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. Here the issue is not only what we are expecting but what we imagine other people are doing.

Women, in particular, are often done in by the meaning that they attach to these holidays (albeit with significant help from our culture.) On Valentine’s Day, if we don’t have anyone, it means something, and if we do, what he does or doesn’t do means something. I once had a patient who broke up with her boyfriend because he gave her carnations on Valentine’s Day. Given that they had been only dating a month, and that he was only 23, it seemed to me that she was assuming too much when she concluded this was an insulting choice of flowers. But she was genuinely hurt, feeling that this was truly a reflection of how much he cared about her. The problem was not the flowers, but the meaning she attached to them in relation to the importance of Valentine’s Day, and I’m guessing that none of this was in this young man’s head for an instant.

Nevertheless, there are many times when we have been truly hurt and disappointed during the holidays, and these memories can endure a long time. Perhaps the hardest memories of all are those of people who you have loved who are no longer with you. Because holidays do emphasize family so much and are a time when people gather, when those people are gone their absence can be strikingly painful. In the past ten years, my family has lost my parents and finally my sister, four years ago. Because all of my cousins live far away we had always celebrated holidays with just our own family. But now all that’s left is my husband and my three daughters, leaving us not only with our sadness, but without the distractions of other people to divert us from the empty seats at the table. This year will be the first year we will face Thanksgiving without desperately needing to fill those seats with the odd friend or two.

But we all have good memories, too, and I don’t mean to diminish their importance. But I wish for my patients  —and for all of us— that these holidays had not been promoted into to such a big deal. Maybe the new austerity that lies ahead will naturally result in some recalibrating and toning down of our national rituals. Perhaps if they were not so overblown, we could all relax a little. The heat needs to be turned down a notch or two for some of the mines to be defused.

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