When I was younger, I didn’t understand how anyone could be sad during the holiday season.

From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, there was so much wonder and excitement to experience: loud belly laughs over warm meals, thoughtfully wrapped gifts tied with bows and sugar cookies to decorate with frosting and sprinkles.

There was the tree lighting in Portland’s Monument Square, movie nights at Nickelodeon Cinemas and horse-drawn carriage rides across the Old Port’s cobblestone streets.

My family created traditions that passed on from year to year, like receiving new pajamas on Christmas Eve, buying Secret Santa gifts for our cousins and watching VHS home videos of our younger selves.

The holiday season is filled with stories about finding “the spirit” – whether that’s true love in the form of a Hallmark movie (big city girl meets hometown hunk), magic in the form of a bell from Santa’s sleigh (which rings only for those who truly believe) or silliness in the form of an elf frolicking in Times Square, searching for his dad (while indulging in maple syrup on his spaghetti).

Books, movies, songs and podcasts all try to reinforce that, especially during this time of year, we should look inward and remember to reflect on the important things in life.

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Still, we find ourselves needing reminders over and over again.

We need reminding that despite sprinkles and snowflakes and sugarplum fairies, there is pain and suffering in the world.

We need to remember there are people like the Grinch who feel isolated and lonely, likely traumatized by bullies and alienated by their communities.

We need to remember there are underpaid Bob Cratchits who are taken advantage of by Scrooges.

We need to remember there are people who identify with George Bailey – people who feel unimportant and depressed, who might stare down at the icy waters of their own Bedford Falls, wondering if they should take the plunge.

It is an unfortunate and sad truth – one I couldn’t imagine as a child on Christmas Eve, sitting in a church pew during Mass, hardly able to contain my excitement for the hours to come.

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But as I grew older and began to learn more about the world, and to suffer loss firsthand, it changed the way I view the holidays.

I still can find joy in family traditions, in the first snowfall, in parties and in the look on someone’s face when a kind gesture is made. But I’m also more mindful to hold space for grief – be it mine, a family member’s or a stranger’s.

Grief is an often-invisible cloak of sadness. It can hide behind smiles and crouch in the corners of silence.

It is the family member absent from their seat at the kitchen table. It is the paycheck that no longer arrives. It is the baby never born.

Sometimes it’s the hair gone from chemotherapy or the air pressure of a ventilator or ashes from a forest fire. It could be an eviction notice, a denied loan or divorce papers.

Any given hour is someone’s happiest and another person’s saddest.

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To hold space for another does not mean to take on all their sadness. It does not mean to forgo joy.

To hold space is to listen instead of judge. To comfort rather than berate.

Often during the holidays, a primary focus becomes toy and food drives – important, tangible ways of reaching out to others.

But holding space doesn’t have to be tied to money or a material good. It can be found in including someone who often feels excluded. It can be helping with a project, shoveling snow, offering one’s time. It might take the form of a compliment, a funny meme, a hug.

Holiday stories usually focus on the change that occurs within the protagonist – the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, Scrooge’s stinginess dissolves into charity and George Bailey discovers his self-worth.

But equally important to note is the role of the supporting characters and how their words and actions make a difference.

Love and magic are important elements to the holiday season. But, above all else this year, perhaps we should remember kindness.


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