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How to make special occasions sane….

Nancy Rempel

Surviving holidays and special occasions year round… by Nancy Rempel

My birthday falls one month prior to Christmas, and I always feel like it marks the beginning of “the crazy season.”

For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with feeling peaceful at this time of year.

I am the “baby” in my family, and from what my oldest brother Dave has told me, fun and present-filled Christmases quit happening when I finally reached the age to appreciate them. Instead of a tree adorned with ornaments, and trails of nuts and cookie crumbs, along with generous presents left by Santa, my siblings and my mother and I would walk around on eggshells all day, in the hope that there would be some cheer and that my dad might join us to open even one present.

As an adult, I can now appreciate that my dad despised the materialism and conformity leading up to the season. This, combined with the trauma my parents faced after my sister and brother died of cystic fibrosis, just prior to – and then, one year after my birth deeply affected them . These were not the days of support for grieving families. When I asked my mom about what happened after Catherine and then Billy died, she said she and dad were sent home from the hospital with the expectation that they’d carry on with raising two busy boys and a new baby. End of story.

The incredible losses my parents’ endured, help to provide some explanation about how dysfunctional many family holidays were. As a parent, I can only begin to imagine what the loss of two of your five young children could possibly be like.

As the parents of two children, my husband and I make the effort to make Christmas a special and happy occasion. Even though my kids are now both teenagers, the air gets pretty electric leading up to and around the big day. Things however, have changed from when they were really young. I used to get really stressed while trying to please everyone i.e.  be perfect and make the day “picture” perfect with all the right toys and presents. I used to hunt for bargains at big, brand name stores year-round to try to live up to the “Jones” and the perfect Christmases displayed on TV shows and in movies.

Thankfully, as the kids have grown older and we have had more time and the opportunity as a family to take a really good look at what truly makes us feel good at this time of year. As a result, our Christmases have evolved into something a lot less crazy and stressful, but none-the-less things can still get pretty intense. I have come to the conclusion that unless you live under a rock or in a non-Christian society, the hype around the season can’t be avoided, but it can be managed.

We still exchange some store bought gifts, but we have created our own rituals around the season, and in the words of Charle’s Schultz and Dr. Seuss, they don’t’ come from the store.

Now, the countdown to the big day begins with heading out to the bush near Lodgepole for a tree cutting expedition in early December. A few year’s ago, we were invited by a forester friend to join an established group that go annually. It’s always a challenge to get out on the icy highway early on a Saturday morning, but wienies and shared food by the campfire and the beautiful scent of the forest while hunting for our Charlie Brown-style tree has become a favourite tradition.

Another event that is mandatory is going to Mrs. Christmas’s house. Mrs. Christmas is Sarah, a woman I met through a mutual friend while walking in our local ravine. Each December (as long as she is in town) we are invited for an evening of singing, socializing and general mirth. Someone always plays the piano and everyone gets to choose a favourite piece to sing, so the music ranges from traditional Christmas carols to African-American spirituals. It is a chance to sample from the feast of music written for the season, and to focus on what really counts – like simply enjoying the chance to visit with people you only see once a year.

Finally, another big part of the season for us is the food. I used to get very stressed about the menu of special foods I felt we had to have for Christmas to happen. This list is now being delegated and shared and it isn’t the end of the world if a few dishes get missed or replaced with something else.

Making everything lower key and less about just one day, along with delegating to our kids who are now old enough to really help during the holiday season has made Christmas a lot easier and less emotionally confusing for everyone.

The day can still be stressful, but overall, by trimming down expectations and being a lot kinder to myself about being a human and not Superwoman has helped to make the day one that I actually enjoy. And when you really look at any holiday or family tradition, that should be the goal and aim for everyone, rather than tension and emotional suffering.

I like reminding myself that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results. That’s where stepping back and taking a look at long established traditions and then negotiating and discovering what everyone can live with, and perhaps can even be happy about – needs to become an option.

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