Practical Tips for Avoiding Holiday “Ambushes”

The holidays, rightly understood, are special times set apart from the rest of year in which we are encouraged to take stock of our lives, be thankful for the people and things that God has given us, and celebrate the mind-blowing truth that God loved us so much that He incarnated Himself into human flesh (!) so that it would be possible for us to have a personal relationship with Him (John 3:16).

Surviving the HolidaysBut even under the very best of circumstances – intact family, steady work, good health – I think we would all acknowledge that somehow the holidays have morphed into one of the more frantic times of year. What was originally intended as a respite from the everyday stresses of life has itself become increasingly stress-filled, what with turkeys to bake, gifts to buy, and endless parties to attend – whether you are feeling particularly jolly or not. Now imagine adding over all of that “normal” holiday-related tension the thick layer of relational brokenness that the break-up of a marriage brings – an all-consuming emotional breakdown that mercilessly dominates the thought life, refusing to allow one to enjoy even the simple pleasures. Imagine being alone on Thanksgiving or Christmas morning against your will.

Ten days ago, my wife Shelly posted a blog providing details on The Crossing’s Dec. 10 brunch/mini-seminar, “Surviving the Holidays.” If you want more information on what that’s all about and how you can get involved, please read that post. If you want to sign up for the Dec. 10 event, please register online so we get some idea of how much food we should order.

And if, for any reason, you can’t make it to the Dec. 10 event, you can find a ton of helpful articles and videos by visiting the Surviving the Holidays (STH) website.

Today I’d like to boil down some of the ideas I have picked up through facilitating this session, and provide what I hope to be helpful suggestions for one key piece of advice – do whatever you can to avoid emotional “ambushes.”

An ambush can take many forms, of course, but the basic idea is that something you did not anticipate leaps out at you and catches you completely off-guard, typically serving to contribute to a deepening sadness and/or grief. Example: You go downstairs to unpack your Christmas decorations and, upon opening the first carton, the tree ornament that immediately catches your eye contains a photo of you and your ex…especially painful if your ex is off celebrating with “someone else” this year. Ambushed!

So how do we cope? Please understand that this list is not intended to be exhaustive. It is merely my response to what I have heard from other people as they have encountered any number of “surprises” during their first holiday season after a traumatic event has taken place.

  1. Have a Plan. Seems obvious, but is nonetheless often overlooked. If you have not made plans for how you will spend your time this Thanksgiving and Christmas, do so immediately. Particularly if you have children – but won’t be spending the holiday with them – you may feel “at loose ends.” If so, your plans can be creative; try to use some “out of the box” thinking. For example, could you volunteer to help at a relief agency of some kind, helping out as a means of both “having something on your calendar” and also trying to bring a touch of happiness to others? Have you been wanting to take in a movie or two, or read a book that has been languishing on your shelf? Perhaps you and a couple of friends could go out to Thanksgiving dinner together and skip the cooking and dirty dishes altogether. Whatever you do, make some solid plans for how you will spend your time. That said…
  2. Hold Your Plans Loosely. Often our plans do involve our kids, and perhaps we are not on the best of terms with the ex. If your plans are too tightly wound around serving the turkey precisely at 4:00 p.m., and yet that plan’s success hinges on your ex being on time, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment and not a little bit of anger. Avoid tightly tying your plans to an unmanageable relationship with someone else, or several someone elses. It never hurts to have a Plan B (or even a Plan C, D, and E). One of the ways in which we can unwittingly accentuate a trying holiday season is to “pour concrete around our plans” and then watch helplessly as other people sabotage our attempts to have a cheery holiday gathering. Please note that sabotage is often unintentional (though not always). Try to think a step or two ahead on this one.
  3. Strength in Numbers. Invite friends over to holiday events and/or to help you prepare your house or apartment for the season. In the example above – opening a box of ornaments only to find a cheery photo of you and your ex – having a close friend on hand to help you go through your boxes and “sort appropriately” for your new life circumstances could easily have thwarted this particular ambush. Sure, the surprise almost certainly would still have stung, but having a comrade close at hand would have helped to deal with it quickly and (this is important) realistically.

  4. Go Deep with God. Anxieties, pressures and ambushes are part and parcel of everyone’s life in this fallen world, which brings us right back to why Jesus chose to come to Earth in the first place. If we attempt to go through holidays that were designed to give thanks to God and celebrate His arrival “in a secular manner,” then of course it is vitally important that every family gathering be over-the-top joyful, the turkey be cooked to perfection, and all the gifts deeply appreciated by the recipients. In other words, if we have placed our hope in those things – and not in Christ – then the loss of those things will be all that much more devastating. If you have never put your ultimate hope in Christ, now might be a good time to revisit your faith and ask yourself some hard questions about why the loss of your brother-in-law’s special-recipe egg nog feels so significant.
  5. Cut Yourself Some Slack. It’s perfectly OK to spend your holidays in non-traditional settings. Take a friend up on his or her offer to spend time at their house, go bowling or engage in some other sort of enjoyable activity that would not typically make its way into the script of your typical Hollywood-produced Christmas movie. The key is to find things that you still enjoy doing, make preparations for the fact that many stores will be closed on the holidays, and reach out as best you can, especially if you know of other people who are “dreading” the approach of the holidays themselves.

As I said, this list is not intended to be exhaustive; it should rightly be thought of more as a “primer” than anything else. If you need more ideas and/or encouragement, make plans to join us at The Crossing on Saturday, Dec. 10, check out the resource articles and videos already mentioned, and put pencil to paper with the intent of actually celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas, instead of merely “getting through it all.”

One last (obvious) suggestion: Prayer should be a part of any and all planning you engage in this season. “Lord, You know that I am hurt, and grieving. The approaching holidays do not hold a lot of promise for me, as far as I can tell. How would You like me to spend my time, energy and resources this Christmas? How can I rightly honor You, given my new life circumstances? Help me live out joy in what feels like a joyless season of life.” Scripture tells us that God is near to the broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18), and loves to answer the prayers of those in distress (Psalm 34; Psalm 56; Psalm 143).

If this is your first holiday season as a separated or divorced individual, please do invest some time in preparing yourself as best you can. In so doing, you may find that you can still have a meaningful Thanksgiving and Christmas, even if they do turn out to be non-traditional.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

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