Beating the Holiday Blues: A Prayer for the Melancholy

By Warren Holleman
Revised December 2, 2016.

IMG_3413Holidays can be difficult, especially for those who struggle with depression and addiction. Do you know the song, “Have Yourself A Merry, Little Christmas”? It was recorded by Judy Garland, in 1944, for the movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” It’s not a typical holiday song. It’s not cheery or saccharin or superficial.

I love this song because its melancholy tone speaks so honestly of the sadness, loneliness, and emptiness that many feel around the holiday season.

My favorite version is the one sung by James Taylor. Like Garland, Taylor struggled with depression and addiction. When he sings this song I can hear his pain at the mixed blessings and curses of this bipolar season of happy highs and lonely lows, good cheer and too much good cheer, anticipated joy trumped by lurking emptiness and sadness.

Taylor adds his own introduction that speaks poignantly of the need to avoid hoping for too much in our future Christmases and to avoid dwelling on the pain of Christmases past. Instead, he says, we should stay focused on the present. That’s the way to get through the holidays clean and sober and reasonably happy. Maybe not cheery in a “Jingle Bells” or “Deck the Halls” fashion. But happy enough: “Christmas future is far away/Christmas past is past/Christmas present is here today/Bringing joy that may last.”

Then Taylor launches into the familiar lyrics, penned by Robert S. Nevil and Matthew Gerrard: “Have yourself a merry, little Christmas.” It’s as though he’s saying, “It doesn’t have to be a big, grand Christmas where expectations are unrealistically high and disappointments are sure to follow. Rather, set your sights a bit lower, and have yourself a merry little Christmas. That’s so much better than trying for a big Christmas that always ends up deflating and disappointing.”

Then it dawns on me: this isn’t just a song, it’s a prayer. “May you have yourself a merry, little Christmas.” And another prayer: “May your hearts be light/In a year your troubles will be out of sight.” Wow! This is light years from “Jingle Bells” and all the sugary sounds of the season. Instead of assuming that we’re going to be all cheery for the holidays, the presumption is just the opposite: that at least quite a few of us will be troubled.

If you’re living far from home, Christmas can remind you of your loneliness. If you’ve lost someone dear in your life, Christmas can stir up the grief and the memories.

If you’re in the early stages of recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, Christmas is anything but “the most wonderful time of the year.” My apologies to Andy Williams, but if you’re struggling to stay sober, it’s the absolute worst time of the year.

Some people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, craving sunshine and serotonin during this season of long nights and short days. Others pause during the holidays to reflect and discover that they miss those halcyon days of childhood innocence and revelry. Or that they’ve failed to accomplish their goals or fulfill their dreams.

Whatever it is that’s giving you the holiday blues, this is James Taylor’s prayer for you: “May your hearts be light,” and “in a year (may) your troubles be out of sight.”

And, don’t forget to lower your unrealistic expectations of the biggest and best Christmas ever. Just be grateful for what you do have, “and have yourself a merry little Christmas time.”

If you enjoyed this post, check out my “holiday stress” series. Let me know what topics you’d like me to address, or send me your own stories and tips, and I’ll post them.
Thanks to Annie Holleman for this photo of our dog. Sophie is a catahoula hound and, as you can see, she is is prone to depression during the holidays. She says she feels stuck in the city chasing stupid, little squirrels. What she wants, of course, is to be out in the country doing something important and meaningful, like treeing coons and chasing wild hogs.
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  1. Jeff Flasik - November 28, 2015 @ 9:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing this story and the advice from the roundtable. This all will help me get through this holiday season.

  2. Warren Holleman - December 1, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

    My cousin Vicki (who knows 100 times more about music than I ever will and who once played soccer in James Taylor’s backyard–and who taught me to water ski, but that’s not really relevant) sent me another great JT song with a similar theme. Here’s the link:

  3. Vicki Barnes - December 1, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

    The song is JT’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “River”. It’s beautiful and melancholy. There have been times in my life when these lyrics expressed exactly how I felt. Click the link. It’s worth listening to.
    And about that skiing ~ I’m surprised that old worn out boat didn’t sink, but what fun! Warren learned to jump big wakes like a pro!

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