BY LISA MARIE BASILE
The holidays (any holiday) can trigger feelings of sadness and pain for many of us. For me, the end-of-year Christmas/Yule/New Years week is particularly difficult.
This sadness has roots in my childhood; around the age of nine-10 my family began facing addiction, rehabs, poverty, separation, homeless shelters, and then my brother and I went into foster care, which I aged out of only after high school. It feels like I was fast-tracked through endless trauma, my body continuously on the edge of stress-collapse for more than a decade during my most formative years. For many of my years, Christmas and New Years only ever served to underscore this.
But before my parents split, and before all the trauma, I did love to celebrate Christmas, and the joy and connectedness are memories I hold to. My Sicilian-Mediterranean grandparents were devout Roman Catholics, and I attended Church with them during this romantic, magical part of the year. Even as a child, I fell in love with the pageantry and detail of the church-going ritual: The incense, the prayer, the ideas of blood and body. Although I don’t consider myself Catholic today, my familial rituals of celebration, gratitude and reflection have stayed with me in my own secular, more earth-based spiritual practice. I did not have enough of these happy years.
Whenever the holidays hit, I am left with these gaping wounds—memories of Christmases in homeless shelters (where the local community kindly donated gifts). Memories of not seeing family. Memories of foster care, where for three years I felt foreign to everything, especially happy, colorful celebrations of love and family. Memories of family dying, disappearing. I’ve got almost none left.
These traumas, especially during our formative years, have a way of staying with us until the bitter end. I won’t ever shake the feelings of abandonment and emptiness during the holidays, but I do fight against letting it win. That said, that’s a lot easier said than done.
I still think of all the children in foster care, or the kids separated from their parents due to barbaric immigration policies. I still think of the isolation that will drape darkness over their lives years to come. These deep-seated wounds can have an impact on your entire life, even when you rationally know that it can no longer ‘get’ you.
If you’re worried that your holiday feelings, caused by childhood pains, are silly or irrational or dramatic, know that you’re actually wired to feel those ways. In fact, Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at MIT, told Quartz that our brains are most malleable during those younger years: “As a result, traumatic experiences that occur during these time periods can alter brain activity and ultimately change gene expressions—sometimes for good.”
In short, if Christmas, Hanukkah, Veteran’s Day—or any other holiday, literally—was hard for you growing up, it may be part of your wiring today. And that is valid.
But the holidays are particularly hard even when there’s no connection to childhood trauma. You may have recently lost a family member—a grief that the holidays have a magical way of turning up to 11, or perhaps you are going through serious health issues that leave you too stressed, financially burdened, or incapable of seeing family.
Maybe you have gone through a break-up or a divorce, and now have to rewrite your holiday ritual. Or maybe you are separated from your current partner during the holidays because your families live too far apart. Perhaps you cannot afford to travel to visit family. Perhaps you and your family do not get along and you either are or feel unwanted.
Perhaps your family doesn’t take the shape of the traditional family unit; perhaps you only have one or two living relatives or perhaps going home means dealing with some inevitable drama of family toxicity. Perhaps political or ideological issues have destroyed your family dynamic. Perhaps your family takes issue with the way you identify.
There are so, so, so many situations in which the holidays—a time we put so much expectation and meaning into—leave us feeling hopeless, lonely, and invisible. Often, because we are determined to create that meaning because we want so badly to be happy, we are left reflecting on what we don’t have. This can be especially painful if you are managing mental health or chronic health issues, or if you’re doing emotional labor at the dinner table.
You’re not sentimental or conventional or silly to want to take part in celebrations and rituals. You don’t need to endorse the church or believe in resolutions to want to feel the good tidings. Holidays themselves have been rewritten as times of togetherness and cheer, and it’s hard to shake wanting to be involved with that. Know that you’re not alone if you feel this way.
For a long time I’d say things like, “I’m not even religious,” when it came to Christmas. In my attempt to belittle the time of year, I was, in some ways, invalidating my own feelings of wanting family, stability, and a safe caccoon from which to reflect and celebrate life and add a little cheer to the darkest part of the year. I’m—we are all—only human.
Rewriting & Reclamation
For many people, taking the holidays back in a way that feels authentic is key. That could mean building boundaries, eliminating toxic people from your celebration, or rebuilding your holiday altogether. Or, it could mean taking some time to integrate more positive and personal rituals into an already stressful routine."
In the article, “9 Non-Binary, Gender Fluid, & Transgender People On Dealing With Toxic Family Members Over The Holidays,” we see the rituals and actions taken by brave people who’ve had to redefine or simply eliminate holiday celebrations. Many have had to choose solitude during the holidays altogether in order to avoid pain inflicted upon them from their own families.
For others, it’s not always easy to simply get rid of family members or remove toxicity from your life. We are often faced with a choice of getting rid of a toxic family member and being truly lonely or keeping someone negative around simply to fill a void. That’s not a choice anyone should be forced to make.
I asked my social network to talk to me about the rituals they’ve adopted if their holidays are extra painful due to family or personal trauma, and I’ve learned a few things. For one, reclamation is key.
For writer Sassafras Lowrey, it’s about holiday queer reclamation, as a formerly homeless/runaway youth. Lowrey also wrote a book about it.
In Lowrey’s latest piece, “Writing My Way to a New Sort of Holiday: On Queerness & Christmas Stories,” Lowrey writes,
Making new rituals
Though it can be painful to have to rewrite the holidays and, essentially, build our own from scratch, we owe it to ourselves to make these times feel transformative, mindful, and meaningful.
Include chosen family.
If you have had to stop seeing family over the holidays, try to build a small network of people with whom you can celebrate. These should be people that you trust and that I understand you. This may be difficult, since everyone’s schedules are so chaotic—but if that’s the case, preprep a few people you can call and chat with if you do feel a need to connect with others. It’s so important to know that you have someone on the other line that you can talk to if you end up feeling lonely. It might sound a bit strange, but preparing ahead four nights which may be lonely or difficult can go far.
Celebrate with the dead.
If grief has struck around the holidays, one of the ways you can keep a sense of normalcy is to include the dead. Pour a drink for them. Write a letter to them. Talk about them at the dinner table. Create a memory box for them. One of the things I’ve done is spend time in a graveyard, simply talking to them and holding space for them. For some, this may be too painful—and that’s okay, too. Decide what your parameters may look like, and communicate with those around you about your needs. Don’t be ashamed to leave the room or excuse yourself when you’re not comfortable. Grief is a sea; every wave takes each of us in a new direction.
A great way to make the holidays meaningful, and to add love, care, and goodness—which rewrites the day for you—is to help others. This could mean spending a few hours at the local homeless shelter or donating gifts to a children’s hospital. Here are some opportunities.
Invite someone who doesn’t have a place to go to your home.
If you have a friend who can’t see their family, invite them over! When it comes to holidays, we have built this weirdly intimate veil over who is ‘allowed’ into the nest. Family or not, you’ll be making someone feel wanted. And that’s pretty amazing.
For me, ritual is my foundation. During the holidays, I only ever see one or two family members, and I only sometimes celebrate with my partner, who has family overseas. This hasn’t stopped feeling sad, but I try to create ways to celebrate via ritual. I will often light three candles—which I let burn all day—to represent my gratitude, my intention or wish for others, and a memory I’d like to heal. Making the time to do this ensures that I’m practicing self-care but it also creates a sense of magic apart from the standard pomp. The candles, in their visual beauty, dance in the window or from a table, reminding me that I have the power to make holidays my own.
This is my personal favorite. When I catch myself thinking about the family I don’t have, or the losses I’ve experienced, or old painful memories, I try to reroute—literally rewire—my brain. What do I have? Who cares for me? Am I safe? Am I cozy? Whatever it is, I make a point to appreciate it. Obviously, gratitude will look and feel different for each of us. If you’re in a stressful family situation, this could mean making gratitude self check-ins mandatory as a way to self-care.
The process of making food is meditative. Put on some music, pour a glass of wine, and pick a favorite dish. It can be anything. Work your way through it, taking time to savor the experience. Even better—donate some of it. Make a plate for your landlord or doorman or leave a plate of cookies for the mail delivery person.
Make things. Write poems. Make a necklace. Sew. Finish a manuscript. Paint by candlelight. Create a moodboard or vision board, and use your energy to do create or heal old wounds. Dance. There is nothing stopping you from doing what you want or need to do; just because it’s the holiday doesn’t mean you can’t work or do something fun and festive of your own choosing. Just make sure it it’s something that makes you truly happy.
Pre-build a routine.
If you’re having a hard time, make a list of what you will do during your holidays. This might sound challenging, but setting structure for yourself may help you cope with the feelings. I might wake up, stretch and meditate, exercise, allow myself time to watch a movie or read or write, then I’ll build time for cooking, calling a few people, and so forth. Build in meaningful activities, and exclude what makes you feel sad. This can give you a sense of power when you’re lost at sea, facing old feelings and wounds.
Take some time to research holidays and folklotic traditions. Perhaps there are ancient stories or beliefs that your ancestors told around the fire. Maybe there are traditions you’ve been interested in celebrating (maybe you’re exploring Pagansim, for example, but you’re not sure how Pagans celebrate the end of the year.) Cozy up with a book of folkloric traditions, and you may find yourself learning more and adding dimension to your own holiday. This year, I’m determined to learn more about La Befana, the elder woman who bears gifts on Epiphany Eve, or La Festa dell’Epifania. The thing is, she’s also a witch—and I’d love to learn more about her backstory and how the witch as an archetype played into this story.
In the end, these times are times that ask us to accept change and honor our pain. For me, it’s two-fold. I can’t do one without the other. Find a way to both honor your feelings and let them sit in validity while also making space for adaptability, self-love, and healing through pain. Creating boundaries, saying no and yes when you mean it, and integrating positive new rituals can help make a tough time a little lighter.
Lisa Marie Basile (@lisamariebasile) is the founder of Luna Luna. Most recently, she is the author of Light Magic for Dark Times (Quarto Group, 2018), a modern grimoire of inspired rituals and daily practices, as well as Nympholepsy (Inside the Castle, 2018), a book of poetry. Her work encounters the intersection of ritual and wellness, chronic illness, magic, overcoming trauma, and creativity, and she has written for The New York Times, Narratively, Grimoire Magazine, Sabat Magazine, The Establishment, Refinery 29, Bust, Hello Giggles, and more. Lisa Marie earned a Masters degree in Writing from The New School and studied literature and psychology as an undergraduate at Pace University.