The holiday season isn't always full of magic and anticipation. Sometimes it's filled with loss or grief or change. But there's also hope. If you need hope this Christmas, you'll find it here along with ways to share it in those years when you have hope in abundant supply. A special thanks to our readers for sharing their experiences when the holidays are hard, so you can get through them and help others along the way.
I haven’t always loved Christmas. For a few of my teenage years, I wanted it to come and go as quickly as possible. My dad was gone and we were isolated from most of my extended family. In one year, the adults in my home--my dad’s parents lived in a downstairs apartment--went from four to one. My grandfather died after a short cancer battle, my grandmother got remarried and later moved out of state, and my dad left.
Looking back, I know it was hardest on my mom and I’m sure my teenage self didn’t make it any easier for her. Everything was different.
I wanted to see my cousins at the Christmas Eve service. On Christmas morning, I wanted to hear my dad tell me and my brother that we couldn’t walk past the bathroom because we’d see the tree and he didn’t have the video camera ready yet. (Even though it annoyed me every year before that.) I wanted to sit in the living room of my other grandparents’ house with all my cousins and aunts and uncles, opening one gift at a time in age order until the noise and chaos finally took over.
What I wanted didn’t matter. I couldn’t have it because it was gone.
Maybe that’s your reality this Christmas. Wanting and wishing and longing for something that just isn’t there. Or maybe a friend or family member is facing something hard and you wish you knew how to help.
We’ll all have a turn at a difficult holiday season because it’s an inevitable part of life. But there’s hope. And I think you might be surprised by where you can find it or how you can share it.
I reached out to our readers about how they’ve handled the hard stuff during the holidays, and they shared devastating and beautiful experiences. Between their responses, my own experience and expertise from psychologists and neuroscientists, I found a thread that runs through all of it.
That thread is gratitude.
Before we dig deeper, I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting that there’s an easy or magical answer. There’s not. But the practice of gratitude is an intentional answer rooted in science. And it's repeated throughout scripture because it's powerful.
One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp is one of the most beautiful and powerful books I've read about grief and gratitude and joy.
You may see yourself in the scenarios below, or someone you care about may come immediately to mind. Later, I share how gratitude can help based on suggestions from people who have been where you are or who understand what others are going through.
Why We Need Hope for the Holidays
Are you barely breathing because a death is so recent you can’t image how you’ll get to the next day or hour or even minute? Or maybe months or years have passed, but grief washes over you in waves without warning.
Are you spending your days and nights in the hospital, putting on a brave face for the ones you love, and then letting the tears flow at home in the dark? Or maybe walking out of the nursing home, remembering those moments when there was still light in their eyes.
Are you feeling anxious about the impact of every purchase on your dwindling savings? Maybe you’re quietly checking job placement boards every chance you get and carrying the weight of financial loss or uncertainty.
Are you staring down a Christmas season as a single parent for the first time, and wondering how the broken pieces of your marriage used to fit together? Maybe that smile on your face is hiding loneliness and anger because you’re determined to hold it together for your kids.
Are you handling all the activities and parties and gifts and obligations on your own because your partner is absent? Maybe the stress of their job or long hours away bleeds into your relationship and resentment threatens to take hold.
Are you struggling to manage expectations of in-laws and extended family while wishing you could create some new traditions of your own? Maybe new family members mean changing dynamics and hurt feelings and a new reality you all have to navigate.
Are you living in a new home or city and wishing for the comfort of something or someone familiar? Maybe your travel plans are stressful or you can’t make it home for Christmas this year.
Are you fighting through the haze of depression that settles over you for reasons you can’t explain? Maybe you’re overwhelmed at the thought of celebrating Christmas, but you know how much you need those twinkling lights and human connection.
Are you dreading the conversations and questions that leave you exhausted or frustrated that life isn’t what you thought it would be? Maybe you know the unresolved conflicts or annual holiday arguments will linger on long after the holidays are over.
3 Reasons Gratitude Is The Hope You Need
When life feels like it’s unraveling but you need to get through the holidays, gratitude can be the thread of hope you need. Gratitude can literally be your lifeline.
1. Gratitude changes our perspective
Gratitude turns what we have into enough.
Gratitude changes everything.
In everything give thanks. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:18
Even when we can’t change our circumstances, we can change our response to them. It’s never easy, but gratitude can help change our perspective. The research on gratitude consistently shows increased optimism and greater levels of psychological well-being. It decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety when practiced consistently and it develops resilience so we’re better equipped to cope with difficulties in life. It may also help counteract suicidal thoughts. The practice of gratitude actually changes the molecular structure of the brain, which makes it easier to be more grateful and reap all the benefits of gratitude
2. Gratitude Leads to Happiness
If we magnified blessings as much as we magnify disappointments, we would all be much happier. ~ John Wooden
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. ~ Melody Beattie
I continue to be amazed at the amount of research out there about gratitude and happiness. I’ve come to the conclusion that happy people are grateful people first. When happiness feels elusive, gratitude helps us turn our focus outward to the goodness in our lives. We feel more positive emotions and we build stronger relationships. When we’re grateful, we’re less likely to be envious and more likely to handle stress in a healthy way.
3. Gratitude Gives Back
We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives. ~ JFK
Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it. ~ William Arthur Ward
God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say, thank you? ~ William Arthur Ward
When we’re grateful, the amount of good we can do and bring to the world is endless, and that’s something everyone needs during the holidays. Gratitude makes us aware of how precious life is and we’re less likely to take it for granted. Gratitude helps us create community and connections, which leads to a wider social network and more friends. When we’re grateful, we’re also more agreeable and able to forgive and trust others. Grateful people also have more empathy for others, a key ingredient for a community or society to thrive. And when we take time to thank others, they’re more than twice as likely to spend more time helping and to help more people, including strangers.
How to Find Or Share The Hope This Christmas
If you’re dealing with profound grief or loss this holiday season, being grateful is probably one of the last things you want to do. When you’re ready, or if you have some distance from your loss, gratitude can be a gift you give yourself.
This holiday season and into the new year, keep a daily gratitude journal or take a gratitude walk. Send a card or a quick text to someone who has been helpful or encouraging. Buy or read a book about gratitude so it’s on your mind. Bottom line? Be intentional about noticing the small, everyday things you might otherwise overlook.
If you love someone who struggles with the holidays, you can encourage gratitude in many ways:
- Send a card that’s not holiday focused...write a short message to let them know you’re thinking about them.
- Pick up the phone and call them, and give yourself time to just listen.
- Invite them to an event or over to your home. Understand they may not come or may change their mind at the last minute. Keep inviting them anyway.
- Help them create a new tradition or celebrate in a new way.
- Do something to honor them or someone they love, like a random act of kindness you know they would do themselves.
- Make a small donation to their favorite nonprofit organization or one whose mission would be meaningful.