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Days that are meant to be celebratory can be mentally and emotionally complicated. The holidays are often portrayed as magical times among family and friends, loaded with good cheer and good will towards all. But many people face a different reality and our experiences can vary significantly from one holiday to the next.

Over the years of my life, the holidays have been a mixed bag. There were times when I was lonely, sad and depressed, often when my relationship of the moment was not living up to what I was looking for. I now know that I was the one creating that reality and that I am the one who has to love myself first, way before any other person can add meaning and joy to my life. Thankfully, I eventually learned that lesson and am blessed to have a husband who complements me beautifully. And because we share similar values, we have created an amazing family that is my proudest accomplishment and greatest joy.

Fortunately, these hard times were not my predominate experience. My Dad was enamored with Christmas. He had a knack and passion for finding decorations and using them creatively. While I am sure there are many items I don’t remember, I can vividly picture cardboard fireplaces, life sized plastic nativity figures, silver trees, tinsel, candles that made thin metal figures dance, Christmas village pieces, and tiny, glittery houses that hung on the tree. One of my most favorite items was a spotlight with a color wheel that projected onto our silver tree. I was completely mesmerized watching the shifting colors spread across the tree!

When my Dad was no longer working, he would spend days, even weeks, decorating for Christmas. My boys, and often a few of their cousins, would help him set up an elaborate Christmas village under and around the Christmas tree. Lights were everywhere, inside and out, and even the pictures of all the kids and grandkids would get decorated with red bows! Every time I visited, there was something new to see. I found his enjoyment infectious and loved to watch the excitement spreading to the boys.

Every Christmas Eve, we’d all pile into the house. My Mom, Dad, my 5 siblings and their spouses, our 11 children + 1 spouse and 2 great grandchildren made for quite a crowd! It was our tradition, one that was began as we got older and started families of our own. It was sacred and everyone honored it.

It’s been 5 years since my Dad passed away. The first year was bittersweet. I looked forward to our celebration, and much of it was the same as before he passed away, which was such a wonderful way to honor him and the joy he found in and created at Christmas. The kids did the decorating, just the way he would have done it with them, and we all gathered on Christmas Eve.

Shortly after, the house was sold and the decorations were split up and shared amongst family members. In the following years, the Christmas Eve celebration was shifted to other days, to make it more convenient for each individual family to celebrate Christmas in their own homes and still allow us to all come together. The changes were not easy for me. Several years in a row, I developed a nasty cold right around Christmas. One year, I completely lost my voice. I believe it was last year that I was sickest and spent most of Christmas sleeping. I got up to unwrap gifts with my family, took a long nap, woke to make and eat Christmas dinner, fell asleep on the couch after and went to bed early that night. Since it was only happening once a year, I didn’t realize that my struggles to adjust were causing the illness until it had repeated itself several times.

This year, our family gathering will once again be on Christmas Eve, because that is the day that conveniently works best for everyone. I am grateful that we still make the effort to come together and am especially grateful for the gift of gathering on Christmas Eve. It will feel more like our old tradition. I am grateful that I have pieces from my father’s Christmas village that are now part of my yearly decorating, and that my sons will inherit and cherish in later years.

Whatever next year brings, I hope gratitude and my awareness of my own struggles to accept how things need to change will prevent me from becoming ill. I will always miss my Dad, especially at Christmas. I will always be grateful for the enthusiasm he brought to Christmas, and for showing me how to make it a magical time for my own family. I will always be grateful for Christmas music, as it reminds me of my Dad so much that I can almost hear him singing along, the way he always did.

I understand if you are challenged or don’t find joy in the holidays. I’ve been there. Even when there was a lot to be grateful for, there were still issues that tripped me up. Emotional and mental health are critical components to true health and long term wellness.  We have a tendency to treat them as issues separate from our physical health, but we are one body and one mind, and everything is interconnected. Honor your thoughts and emotions, recognize what things in your life bring you down and see how creative you can be in facilitating change. You are in control. You can change what is not working for you. It’s easier said than done, but well worth your efforts.

My greatest wish for you is that you find peace and great joy, as often as possible and especially in times meant for celebration. And that you have the health you need to enjoy each blessed moment to its fullest. You deserve it. I encourage you to look for the joy in the holidays, and to shape your traditions into what will bring great joy to you and those that you love.