Day Seventeen – Holiday Depression


[Please note that I am writing about malaise, not actual depression.  If you are suffering from depression, seek professional help.]

Studies show that cases of depression and general malaise increase during the Christmas season.  It’s a real problem, and – unless you are some sort of saint (or Vulcan) – it’s probably one you struggle with.  If you google “beating the holiday blues”, you can get all kinds of advice on getting through December with a minimum of misery.  Some of it is pretty good (e.g. change your expectations, don’t drink too much, don’t overspend or overeat), and all of it may well be capable of keeping Americans from “getting the blues” during December.  But I know some things that have been pushing away the “demon of noonday” and allowing people to embrace the joy of Christ’s birth successfully for thousands of years.  It’s called Orthodoxy and here is what serious Orthodox Christians do this time of year:

Fasting.  One of the challenges with the holiday season is that there are too many temptations to eat food that makes us feel like crud.  Processed sugar, rich desserts, lots of gluten, and heavy entrees; this may be fine for Thanksgiving, but the fact is that it doesn’t stop there.  Our eating habits in America are always unhealthy, but they get even worse during the lead-up to Christmas.  

Orthodoxy just says “no” to this nonsense.  No to meat, no to cream and dairy, no to desserts, no to eggs.  In return, it says “yes” to real food eaten to light satiety rather than Mr. Creosote’s “I couldn’t eat another thing…”.  It also encourages some hunger, something that (along with real food) brings health benefits, teaches self control, and helps develop a sympathy with the poor and down-trodden.  The fast comes to an end on Christmas morning, as parishes and families gather together to celebrate the birth of Christ with a big-time feast.  Hunger is the best sauce, and there is not better dish to put that sauce on than the foods offered in celebration of our Savior’s birth (except, of course, that which is served on Pascha morning).  

Prayer.  The thing that hurts us the most 24/7 is our pride.  Sometimes the way it causes us pain is fairly subtle.  One of the ways it hurts us this time of year is through our expectation that this should be a time of easy happiness.  Expectations are dangerous thoughts; they are rarely based on anything real and almost always set us up for failure, both making us “sad” when our expectations are not met and blinding us to the many joys that the moment has delivered.  These expectations can be based on memories of great holiday seasons gone-by, often gilded so much as to make them all but fantasy (despite our attachment to/belief in them); memories of crappy seasons past that we really want to make up for; or just the general sense, created and reinforced by the huge Madison Avenue brainwashing machine and the false faces all those around us put on (creating the “Facebook effect” where we assume that everyone’s life is better than our own).

Orthodoxy teaches us to let go of our expectations and to build our happiness on something dependable.  Daily prayer, both the set prayers of the morning and evening and time set aside for quiet (hesychastic) meditation teach us to live in the moment and allow us to ignore the kinds of thoughts that will hurt us (e.g. expectations and artificial memories).  Our imagination becomes the servant of our rational mind rather than its master.  Of course, prayer bring other benefits, but if we simply gain control over our imaginations and learn to banish all the destructive thoughts that come into our heads, we will be well on our way to sanity, no matter what the season! 

Worship.   We seriously over-schedule our time during December.  There is no time to catch our breath and focus on the things in our life that are truly needful.  As a result, our priorities end up getting skewed and we end up chasing our tails.  By the time Christmas time comes around, we are completely exhausted; we may be relieved that the whole things is over, but there is no way we can enter into the joy of Christ’s birth.  Americans are notoriously over-scheduled, but (as with eating), it is even worse during Advent (i.e. the Lent before Nativity/Christmas).

It may seem counter-intuitive to claim that the best way to deal with the stress of over-scheduling is to make to all (or at least most) of the services that lead up to Nativity, but it is true.  First, the were designed to build anticipation and a deep understanding of the feast itself.  Second, worship centers and calms us; especially when it is done to complement prayer.  Third, it really does need to be done in conjunction with saying “no” to all the crazy things we add to our calendars during Lent.  For the Christian, the purpose of this time of year is getting ready for our Savior’s birth; why should we cut services and add things that take us away from that?  It’s crazy, but this is exactly what most people (and parishes) do.  There is no downside to prioritizing worship over Christmas parties, shopping orgies, and cookie baking.  Worship is a stress-reliever and great protection against the holiday blues (again, especially if it is combined with removing expectations…. sometimes worship becomes part of that same dangerous expectation game).  

Giving.  One of the things that amazes me is how much non-mortgage debt the average American carries.  What amazes me even more is that, despite this, we spend all kinds of money “buying things people don’t need with money we don’t have.”  Borrowing money is never a good idea (with the realistic exception of mortgages), but for someone who is already in debt to borrow money for this… well it’s just plain nuts.  Consumerism brings out the worst in us; we forget who we are.  We seem to believe that buying expensive gifts is what love requires.  We expect it to make us happy.  But it rarely does, especially when we know that we cannot afford it.

Again the Orthodox correction to this frenzy is counter-intuitive: our preparation for the Birth of our Lord should involve sacrificial giving, both to our church and to the needy.  As with worship and our time, sacrificial giving forces us to be more intentional about what we do with our money.  The Lord tells us that we get the greatest spiritual benefit when we give without any expectation of receiving something back.  In fact, He said that the one who receives something back has already received all the reward they will get!  Gift giving usually falls into this category: we think that we are so generous and good, but are we?  When we give to the poor (using money we are saving by living simply during Advent) and to the church, we do not expect anything back (if we do, then more prayer is needed!).  This is so liberating.  The Orthodox are not scrooges or grinches: small Christmas/St. Nicholas gifts are wonderful; but God’s gift of His Son was something that He could never be repaid for, done for creatures that He had nothing in common with.  We defeat stress and the blues when we imitate Him.

As for debt, we need to get out of it.  Period.  Toss the credit cards and draw the line in your habits.  Sacrificial giving actually helps because it forces us to budget, making every dollar we spend represent the real priorities in our lives.  As Christians, these priorities include offering the first-fruits of our labors to God and alleviating the suffering of the oppressed. 

Don’t set yourself up for failure this Christmas.  We really are meant to find peace and joy at Christmas, and this peace and joy should build through the weeks that lead up to it.  This is unlikely to happen if we follow the world in replacing the rituals the Church gave us for this purpose with ones the world gave us for its nefarious reasons.  Our Lord came to heal us from the damage the world has done to us; it’s an ironic tragedy when we celebrate His coming by embracing the very things that damaged us!  

Fight depression and find joy the Orthodox way!