Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
November 2016 - Volume 16, No. 11
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The Holidays’ Dark Side - Holiday Time in a Therapist’s Office

Holidays are intended to bring people together for refreshment, regeneration, and good cheer. With them we take some time out from the ordinary for celebration and renewal. The term holiday comes from ‘holy day.’ Sometimes there’s a ritual where a child will ask “Why is this day of all days special?” There’s a narrative answer that sets the tone, remembers history, opens the mystery, and draws the celebrants together for reflection and high spirits.  

But… there’s a shadow side as well. And these days it’s often in a therapist’s office that the shadow parts of life are wrestled out. This “other” begs to be acknowledged somehow.  

I’ve noticed in my almost 40 years of doing this work, a consistent pattern that emerges during the one-third of the year that comprises “holiday time” - that is roughly October through January. I’m speaking of people who are depressed, and/or have problems with “family” - either from their history, or from the particular stresses of current family relationship management.

Bear in mind that a large percentage of my clientele have problems that involve various aspects of family relationship. So what I am chronicling here may not sync with the larger population of our culture. This is the other or the others also among us. Maybe these are also parts within each of us, but I’m speaking here primarily of separate people.  

Here I’ll break the pattern down roughly into monthly segments.


October marks the beginning of life coming back indoors. The focal center of life moves inwards, which may mean becoming more family oriented. In my corner of the world, it means I can look out my living room window and no longer see ‘work to be done.’ That domestic work center now is more indoors. When I go outdoors, I have to wear more clothes, even when it’s just to get in my car.

There are yet two final rituals still for our Fall labors. One is Hunting (“up North” for us) and the other, it’s cousin, Harvesting - a bringing in or gathering of the work of past months or year.

When home life is unhappy, or has an unhappy history, the stress level rises at this time, and can spread rapidly. In my work, calls for marital counseling can increase at this time, and generally come more from women.


The central stress of November is the family Thanksgiving gathering. For many this is a time of festivity and happiness. But there are those for whom these gatherings involve stress and negative memories. The canon of family gathering happiness runs strong, and leaves little room or breathing space for resident exiles.

The Thanksgiving gathering can also be a time of an empty chair - when those who have died or in other ways have moved on or farther away are missed and grieved.

Needless to say, many client hours can be spent wrestling with all of this. One grace for many is that Thanksgiving usually involves only one day.

And of course there’s shopping. For the retail world, the four months beginning in October have become one continuous and generally wearying economic ritual, often bordering on ordeal.


This is the time when the weight of suffering is heaviest for many. The December holiday time seems to last all month. For many who are depressed, or grew up in unhappy family situations, the forced jollity of each December holiday can only increase the depression and oppression that are close bedfellows of this time.  

Each December some of my clients make me promise that I not leave town this month. It’s not that they will want more appointments, it’s more that they want me to be “around” - at least because I understand their situation and they are free to relate it to me without family sanctions, and an increased load of personal guilt. After all, “its illegal to be unhappy at Christmas.” And for some, the waning religious energy of our primary December holidays, adds a subtle nostalgia experienced often as a grief.

Most prominent among client struggles is the oh-so-careful management of holiday visits for divorced, re-married and blended families. How is it possible to fit 17 people into four of-necessity-separate gathering times? Sometimes the best answer can be to put out a load of money and take the kids on a long trip to where there are no relatives available.

And speaking of money, the ordeal and finely tuned juggling of gift-buying can take the wisdom of Solomon to master. It’s the one time when “gift” and “ordeal” easily fit within a single sentence.

These are the things that my clients often speak about in the privacy of my office. And the stories can be distressing. That’s why they want to make sure I’ll be around for the duration.

Then comes that curious and strange brief time after the holidays, but still in December - like ‘the week after Christmas.’ For a moment the time can become one’s own - it’s been a long time these three months. For some it’s still a work holiday, a school holiday, and maybe for the first time ‘a holiday without ritual or expectation.’ 


Then comes New Years. Somewhere deep in our psyches it’s still supposed to be a time of ritual renewal and transformation. I remember when we used to have “Watch Night” services? Remember when everybody partied at least through midnight? But it seems fewer stay up to watch the ball drop anymore.  

Perhaps we’d watch to see how old Dick Clark looks, but then he finally died a couple years ago.   

Fewer hit the roads for fear of drunk drivers. Fewer make New Years Resolutions, or at least are serious about them. All that’s left is New Years Day football - but that’s now scattered all over the Winter weekends ahead.

But these are not things my clients usually talk about. They’re too weary. Up my way, Winter is a time of silence, a time when life goes underground. I grew up among Midwest farmers. Winter was a time to feed the animals, repair the implements, and live slow for awhile. The activities of Nature were taking place farther below where we couldn’t see. We can slow down as a gift of the natural order, or simply from exhaustion. Four months of frenetic merriment can be a long time!  


There is one more facet of January enters my office. It’s a time when couples decide to separate. They’ve ‘held it together’ either privately or with each other ‘until after the Holidays.’ Or it’s a time when one will announce to the other, or to the kids, that they are leaving.

It a time when my phone rings again for “marriage counseling.” Whereas such queries in October came more from women, in January the calls are frequently from the men. It’s in January the wife will finally announce she wants a divorce. The man is dumbfounded - although she’s tried to talk to him for a long time (maybe since October).  

But why didn’t you say anything?

I have been, but you weren’t listening.

I had no idea you were unhappy.

I’ve been telling you for months, but you wouldn’t listen.

Well, I didn’t think you were serious. How about we go for counseling?

Remember I’ve tried to get you to agree to counseling for months.

Well, how about we do it now?

OK, but I’ll leave it up to you to make the phone call.  

(Ring)   Hello, Mr. McDonald, do you do marriage counseling?….  How soon can we make an appointment?…  Do you have anything sooner?…

One Third of the Year!

This is the Holiday Season from the perspective of a counselor’s office. Each month has it’s distinct character. And yet deep within each of the months is a hunger for goodness, a hunger for people to celebrate and do things together.  It begins with the coming of the Fall weather, and activities, we feel a need to turn inwards. For some, Inwards can be a dangerous place.

As I’ve noted, Holiday is the same root meaning of Holy Day - a special time of transformation and renewal. But instead an entire one third of the year is taken up with activities that bring great suffering to some among us. Maybe it’s the fault of the retail folks. Maybe we’re so hungry for a ‘time out’ that we ruin it.

My Own Perspective - of these Others

I’ve already noted that each of our holidays are meant as times of reflection and renewal. But damage can be done when they split our people into groups of rejoicing and groups of suffering. It’s like the metaphor of our gated communities. Those gates are only for one reason - to keep certain people out. How can there be any true holiday when certain people are excluded, either by the gates we erect against others, or by the fences we tend to erect within ourselves.

Each of our holidays are meant as times to bring diverse people together. Let’s recall that the true meaning of Holiday or Holy Day is to let down the walls, both external or internal. Maybe more than letting them down, tear them down.     

What I’ve shared with you is the shadow view of our Fall and Winter holidays from people who gather within a counselor’s office. It’s a view that betrays many of our holidays as dying from within. Their spirit of reflection, renewal and even reconciliation has been decaying. The hunger for something of true ‘family’ goes unfed. Four long months that lead only to weariness and credit card bills.  

What can we do?

Welcome the Other. Always at some point, even if a small point, act to include someone who is “other.”

These people, these others often live right close among us. Many of my favorite Christmas stories told or read by my parents, or through the media, brought to light the holiday meaning of remembering and seeking out these others. 

A favorite example is my mother’s telling of a traditional Irish song sung on Christmas Day evening. (St. Stephen’s Day immediately follows Christmas - on December 26.)

Listen all ye, ‘tis the Feast of St. Stephen

Mind that ye keep it this holy even

Feed ye the hungry and rest ye the weary

This ye must do for the sake of our Mary

‘Tis well that ye mind ye who sit by the fire

That the Lord he was born in a dark and cold byre.

Perhaps this is Holiday at its best and truest.  

And I could introduce you to a myriad of people who are deeply hungry for it.   

Pay attention

Comments (2)

  • Ok, now I'm depressed....haha

    Personally, I think people who don’t believe in Christianity should stop trying to celebrate Christian holy days. Running up your charge bill buying presents has nothing to do with Jesus. If you don’t feel or understand that God has redeemed you, how can you appreciate how special these holiday gatherings are supposed to be? Most of the young people I know never step foot in a church. I’d be depressed too trying to feel the specialness of a Holiday when I don’t agree with it, and don’t understand the reason for any of it?

    Holidays are a dutiful task. People used to put on their best clothes and go to church. Then gather as a group around a fancy meal and then give each other token gifts. It was about being together then. It was about putting on your best even when you didn’t feel like it. For the sake of others...Now it’s about the GNP of China. Can’t we make a pagan holiday out of the wrapping paper orgy and give the Christian’s their special days back?

    In the middle of ripping through piles of packages, what are we really hoping to receive? It can leave you feeling empty, like spending every dime you have on a lottery ticket, hopeful, and then let down because you didn’t win anything. Even though the odds were against it... People don’t really love or appreciate you more because you went into debt for them. Many don’t even say thanks.

    It seems to be less about giving and more about receiving. Maybe being in a room full of people who get on your nerves, or irritate you, or just get stupid drunk, or who have never given you what you need, is an unbearable activity. But think of it this way; What if your cheerful presence, just your being there means everything to just one person in that room? That is a gift that money can’t buy. Try being present just for the sake of another if that’s all that gets you through it. That is a gift.

    — Askalice, 11/1/2016

    What great memories of mother’s poem and happy days. Life brings changes, but they can also be good. Merry Christmas everyone!

    — Alice, 11/16/2016

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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