Do we miss the holiday, or just sun?

December 28, 2003|By Susan Reimer

Feeling down yet? It has only been a couple of days since Christmas, but by now you should be starting to feel crummy. By Jan. 2, you won't want to get out of bed.

Another strain of flu?

No, just the old, post-Christmas letdown. The same variety that takes hold every year about this time and doesn't depart until the crocuses arrive.

It comes on very quickly.

By the morning after Christmas, the world looks wilted and feels stale. The needles are dropping from the Christmas trees. The pretty packages are trashed. The only cookies left are the broken ones. And the Christmas lights look, I don't know, inappropriate.

We still have people to see and presents to deliver, but it feels like an after-thought. It is as if we are late, somehow, and should apologize. Even for New Year's Eve, we can't muster the same good feelings we felt on Christmas Eve.

The usual explanation for this phenomenon is the retail build-up that begins even before Thanksgiving. Christmas can't possibly measure up to this advertising campaign, and disappointment in the material rewards of the day is guaranteed.

But the season also requires a great pay-out of goodwill and cheerfulness, and the return on that investment is also an inevitable disappointment. Our loved ones never love us enough, especially at Christmas.

I have been thinking lately that the consumer build-up to Christmas is less a retail invention than we thought -- that it might actually have its roots in the Christian tradition of Advent.

Advent derives from the Latin word adventus, meaning coming. For four weeks before Christmas, Christians are supposed to prayerfully prepare themselves not only to celebrate the arrival of Christ among humanity 2000 years ago, but his expected return as well.

Advent didn't start out that way. In early Christian history, it was a period of prayer and fasting that preceded the baptisms that took place on the feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus.

But, by about the fifth century, it became customary for priests to exhort the faithful to prepare for the feast of Christmas, and the build-up began.

Thus, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Advent became "a period for devout and joyful expectation." The key word is expectation. I don't know about "devout" or "joyful," but "expectation" certainly describes the state of the human heart in the weeks before Christmas.

That is true of every child, of course. But we overburdened and stressed-out adults must admit to at least a bit of excitement as well. Hope is in our hearts. And, if we hope for nothing material, we at least hope that this Christmas will be a good one.

Even if you are not Christian, even if you do not celebrate Advent with the wreath and the special rituals on each of the four Sundays, you cannot help but be infected by the sense of anticipation that charges the air at this time of year.

And it is this ancient sense of anticipation which, I think, overlays the modern retail version and amps it up, making the disappointment of Christmas impossible to escape.

After all, no miracle child has arrived to change the world and soften the heart of mankind. At least, not that we yet know of.

There is another, simpler, explanation for the holiday blues.

Richard A. Friedman, a psychiatrist writing in the New York Times earlier this month, said this disappointment and sadness may be good, old-fashioned, seasonal affective disorder.

Look at the time of year, he writes. After all, Christmas falls during the darkest and coldest week in our hemisphere. Friedman makes the point that his Australian counterparts have never heard of the holiday blues. And, he writes, you never hear of anyone experiencing a post-Fourth-of-July letdown.

The doctor points out that SAD, as it is called, can be successfully treated with light therapy or anti-depressants, and that is good news for those people who are dangerously unhappy after the holidays.

But it somehow diminishes for me the whole idea of Christmas if you can simply take a pill to get over it.

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