PHSS (Post-Holiday Stress Syndrome)

By: K. Peak


Another winter holiday season has come and gone. Every year it is the same old thing. Before the holidays, people complain about the stress, about the cost of gifts, about how they have to buy for a zillion relatives, co-workers and  others. After the holidays comes the whining about debt, credit card bills, did Aunt Edna appreciated the two hundred dollar Waterford Crystal bowl or how could cousin Billy return the seventy dollar sweater. Year after year people try to out do themselves and each other.  I saw this when I was in high school and college. When I entered corporate America it continued. Now that I am an At-Home Mom, I still hear the echoes of Holiday Stress from friends and neighbors.

 Sadly, the reason for whatever day recognized, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, becomes lost in the hustle of the all-mighty MALL and the latest craze.  Too many religions forget the reasons behind most of these holidays. People bend to the God of Greed and the Goddess of Plastic.  The Mall becomes a place to worship. We give offerings to the Evil Force of Debt. Our hearts warp as we look to the light at the end of the hall: the neon lie that flashes garishly "I you really LOVE someone you will say it with..."   How many of these gifts will be forgotten, shoved in a closet, returned or recycled next season?  When did we lose sight of why we celebrate what holidays we do?  Why do we allow a corporation, movie studio or electronics company to dictate what will guide the season?  Last I checked, most of the Winter Holidays are to celebrate Light, Hope, Joy, Community and Remembrance. The legend of Kris Kringle was created into the red suited Santa of today by a major soft drink company.  The real Kris Kringle was far from what we know today - and his day was originally much earlier in December. The Christ Child is reduced to a plastic doll stuck in the center of glowing figures in a vain attempt to make people feel like they are doing something religious. Yule logs are now frosted jelly rolls ending a gorge-fest. Does the general public really know the significance of the Menorah?  What about the colors and symbols of Kwanzaa?

 For years, I  became caught in the holiday hassle.  I went to a fairly affluent private high school.  Though my family lived in a small, comfortable home, many classmates frequently reminded me I had not come from the right junior high or neighborhood. My parents struggled to send me to this school.  My classmates were primarily from upper-middle class to lower upper-class families.   Many were children of local politicians, doctors, lawyers or came from inherited money.  They attended the "right" schools for eight years prior to high school. They had expensive parties, clothes and cars.  Money drove their lives - especially during the winter. Every year, my "friends" felt that the cost of the gift indicated the depth of your friendship. My allowance and meager salary from working at an animal shelter barely kept gas in my ten year old station wagon. I could forget about spending an exorbitant amount of money for trinkets for too many people.   I became depressed at the holidays.

 Each Christmas, Catholic Charities sent a list of underprivileged children to the school. They hoped we students would extend ourselves and provide Christmas joy for one child each. Believe me, the last thing many of the children wanted was a video game or stereo. Most wanted warm clothes or a simple toy. At the end of the choosing cycle, many children would be left over.  The sentiment of my class  was "If I can not afford to buy for all my friends and family, how can I buy for someone I don't know?" I would save my hard earned money and take as many of these left-over children as possible.  I would buy one thing each so they would not be forgotten.  I had found the inner strength to go against the grain.  I told my friends I could not do the petty crap any longer.  Instead, I baked or hand-crafted gifts for family and friends.  I wanted, needed to help the children.  I felt far better each time I bought for these needy children than I EVER did giving gifts to petty, materialistic people who would not remember my name a year post graduation!   Granted, I lost friendships - but were they truly friends?

 My mother is the oldest of eight: six girls and two boys. Every Christmas they would pair up and get gifts for another sibling. As the clan married and had children, the balance became off kilter. Some families were struggling financially while others were well off.  Some had multiple children while others did not.  Life became chaotic.  The holidays stressing.  We changed all that.  We returned to the real meaning of the holiday season: Life, Light, Hope. ( These are not necessarily Christian ideals.  My family is a mix of many religions and traditions).

 It started with a couple aunts thinking we had so much and many had so little.  One year, I was in college now, they asked us to donate to a needy family instead of buying for each other. The response was overwhelming. Soon a snowball started and grew to a raging avalanche.  Whatever a family could donate was welcomed: for some it was hundreds, others far less, but no one cared. What mattered was the tradition we had started and the lesson the grandchildren (ranging in age from me at now 29 to the youngest at 7) and now great-grandchildren (my son) will grow up in.    I watched the tradition begin. The youngest was born into it.

 We start at Thanksgiving with a charity proposal. Generally we do two: Toys-for-Tots and a second one chosen each year by a different person. While we sit to a potluck dinner at my parents home, we listen to the charity description and get a handout outlining it. Over the next week or so, checks are gathered. On Christmas Day we go to my Grandparents' for another potluck and read the responses from the charities.  My uncle, a Marine, will explain how he had used resources to fill sometimes van loads with toys for far less than they should have cost. The second "charity person" will read the second charity's response. By the end, there is not a dry eye.  My extended family may be materialistic in other ways but not at the Winter Holidays - not anymore!

 I frequently get asked how I handle the stress of the Holidays. First, I don't let the God of Greed get to me.   My husband and I only give to the immediate family (parents, siblings, and the grands). I do not worry if I am giving enough to a person.  Instead, I try to find or hand-craft a couple special items that reflect that person.  I give things they would not normally do for themselves such small "gift" sized bath bubbles, gels and soaps tucked in a hand-decorated basket for a day of pampering (none of which cost all that much).  I hand-craft gifts: decorated flower pots filled with seed packets; handmade candies and cookies; decorated picture frames with baubles on the edge reflecting what that person likes; herbed vinegars and scented candles made with plants from my own  garden. Most crafts are very simple but look elegant.  Vinegars I have created for less than $2.00 a bottle go for as much as $25.00 at stores. However, unlike store bought things, I can impart on the hand crafted gifts my own energies - my own love.

 Second, I do not let the pettiness of those who feel the only good gift is from an expensive department store affect me.  I have found the strength to ignore the snide and sickly sticky "Oh, this is so sweet."  These people are the ones with the problem. It is not I with a problem.  They are the ones who have forgotten that the Winter Holidays were far different before the advent of the mall, catalog shopping and the internet! In the 1800's, gifts were from the heart.  Children delighted in a sweet treat they normally would not have during the year.  A crocheted shawl Grandma made was far more dear than something ordered from the new fangled department stores out East.  It was a time to bring baked goods to neighbors who had less than you.  It was a time to remember why we celebrate what we do.  This is the spirit I try to recapture each Yuletide.

 Third, I suggest people get either the book or the video  How The Grinch Stole Christmas.  Yes, it deals with Christmas and not all people are Christians.  Forget that and look to the deeper meaning. A green bad guy tries to take Joy from townsfolk by stealing their Christmas things. At the end, he watched the townsfolk gather still possessing the spirit of the day. It did not matter that they had no gifts, decorated trees or big feast. What mattered was they had each other. At the end, the Grinch gave up his nasty ways and was welcomed into the town. This story covers any holiday. It is not what you buy or get or decorate that makes the day.  It is what lies within your heart that brings the Spirit, God, Goddess, Light, Love, Hope and Joy. Another favorite of mine is Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas.  Another beautiful take from Jim Hemson depicting the spirit if the season - not the cost.  And the old stand-by - Charlie Brown.

 Cut out this piece. Tape it to your refrigerator door and read it for the rest of the year.  Share it with family, friends and co-workers. Find your inner power to go against the grain. As we begin a new year, usher in your new life and throw out the greed.  Forget the petty folk and the pressure to spend.   Help out the less fortunate.  Contact a charity and ask what they need. Rally your family and friends to join in.  Host "Bring a Toy" parties for one of the many groups giving to poor children.  Start "Create a Bag" parties to create small bags of shampoos, brushes, toothbrushes and tooth paste, a cuddly blanket, a stuffed toy and items that could be used by a battered women and children's shelter.  Talk to your pastor, rabbi, priest, priestess and rally the religious community.  Go to a craft store and get some books. It is amazing how simple many crafts are! Get off your pathetic, self-pitying butts and find the Spirit! In the end, you will feel better.


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