Steve Cuno: A holiday blues confession

From the protests that erupted around me, you might have thought I’d expressed contempt for humankind and confessed to torturing kittens. Which, of course, is nonsense. I rather like and even identify with humans. I like kittens, too. Even though they grow up to be cats.

No, what I’d said was, “The Christmas season isn’t my favorite time of year.”

To be fair, I understood the surprise of those who’d overheard me. If your spirits soar during the holiday season, it can be difficult to fathom how the same season might cause someone else’s to plummet.

Yet I am far from alone. Every year, no shortage of people experience emotional struggles with the holidays. If this is the first you’ve heard of holiday blues, perhaps it’s because a good many sufferers have learned to keep their yaps shut. “I get depressed around the holidays” rarely plays well.

It’s not unusual for people to respond with chiding (“Come on, Christmas is a time of joy”), scolding (“You must be a terrible person”), name-calling (“Scrooge!”), and would-be instant fixes (“Why don’t you just …”). Well-intended though some of the above may be, they do not help and can even hurt. I’m no mental health professional, but my anecdotal experience suggests that hurt rarely cheers anyone up.

The causes of holiday blues are as varied as its sufferers. In my own case, I credit my parents, who excelled at making my childhood Christmases miserable, and experiences in my alleged adult years that salted the wounds. I reached a point where the mere act of dragging decorations out of storage was all it took to plunge me into a deep depression. My wife ended up with sole charge of things Christmas in our home — decorating, shopping, wrapping, sending out cards — because her husband could no longer face them.

When our kids were 12 and 16, we lost my wife to breast cancer. I dealt with Christmas that year by giving each of the kids a wad of cash and turning them loose in a mall. Dispensing with the usual holiday trappings felt freeing for me, but the kids missed the way their mom had done things.

Not wanting my holiday blues to become their holiday blues, the following year I steeled myself and put up a tree. I wasn’t ready for ornaments, however, so we bedecked the tree with whatever had the misfortune of falling within reach: unspooled recording tape, underwear, egg cartons, a gym sock, an empty Coke can, a dish towel and the like. We wrapped presents in plastic trash bags. We had fun with it, and — there is no overstating the importance of this — my kids’ friends thought it was cool.

For the next year, I braved bona fide tree ornaments and bona fide wrapping paper. But there I drew the line. I wouldn’t string lights, hang tinsel, decorate the house or send out cards. To my relief, my emotions held. Certainly my having taken a minimalist approach had helped. And perhaps it helped that Christmas was no longer bullying me. Through non-participation and tree heresies, I had said “up yours” to holiday expectations. I was hanging ornaments and wrapping gifts because I wanted to, not because I was “supposed to.”

Now that my kids are grown and have families of their own, Christmas and I have established something of a détente: I ignore it, and it ignores me. I live with two German shepherds — dogs, not immigrants with staffs — who never complain about not having a tree. And I work from home, so I needn’t endure holiday office décor or holiday chatter around the water cooler.

But I can’t avoid holiday trappings altogether. Lights adorn nearby homes, carolers show up at my door, wreaths hang from streetlights, neighbors drop off token gifts, stores pipe in Christmas music, “Have a merry Christmas” takes the place of “Goodbye,” and the media bombard us with holiday messages. All too aware that moroseness stands at the ready to have its way with me should I relax my emotional guard, I make a conscious effort to tune it all out. Even the German shepherds do their part: Their furious barking drowns out the carolers.

I’m also aware that I’m lucky. Détente remains agonizingly out of many if not most sufferers’ reach. What one person finds helpful may fall flat for another. Which reminds me: Should a friend with holiday blues risk confiding in you, I implore you not to say, “According to The Tribune, all you have to do is toss a pair of jockey shorts on a tree and you’ll be fine.”

As long as I’m imploring, I’d like to add three more don’ts:

• Don’t wisecrack about being a scrooge. It’s not funny; it’s unkind.

• Don’t scold. Having holiday blues is not a choice. It does not indicate a character defect.

• Don’t offer advice or in any other way try to fix the problem. For one thing, you can’t fix it. For another, you’re not being asked to fix but to understand.

I’d also like to offer a do. Or two. OK, three: Listen, validate and empathize. A sincere “I’m glad you told me” with an optional “I can’t imagine how hard that must be for you” is balm on an aching heart. You will strike a welcome contrast to those who respond with anger, scolding, name-calling, and would-be instant fixes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have just enough time to hide before the carolers reach my door.

Steve Cuno

Steve Cuno is an advertising writer, a columnist for Free Inquiry magazine, and the “as told to” author of the book “It’s Not About the Sex My Ass: Confessions of an ex-Mormon, ex-polygamist, ex-wife” by Joanne Hanks. He lives in Sandy.