I'm reprising this post I wrote prior to winter break in 2019, about the contrast between the holidays portrayed in commercials and that of real life. This sentiment has only expanded as one might feel whiplash between the uncertainty, grief and injustice observed in the last two years and a screen telling you to feel joyful. You know all the usual suspects of holiday commercials. Now, since the pandemic, we also have companies implying that families need to get away together to destinations or rental homes to really connect “post-covid” or that we must buy products to stay virtually engaged with each other if we are apart. There will always be new commercial concepts of what the holidays and family mean. I hope you’ll read below as a reminder that these are just commercials. Take care of yourself this holiday season, no matter what season of life you are in, no matter what season of this pandemic you may find yourself.
For the last two months I’ve seen commercial after commercial with smiling faces, catchy tunes, and kids running around houses full of good food, presents, and family. This season, we’re encouraged to remember what “matters”.
Here’s something else to remember: the goal of these commercials is for the company to sell whatever product or service they offer.
These holiday commercials can cut right to our emotions, to our memories, to our insecurities, to our longings. An ad can do much more to your psyche than capture your attention for a few seconds.
You may be coping with any kind of loss whether that’s the loss of a person or loss of a concept (family, health, normalcy, safety, financial security). You may have a family member who is ill, deployed, far away, or estranged. You may have family members whom you will in fact see over the holidays, but do not always spark the easeful smiles depicted in the commercials.
If none of the above applies to you and these commercials bring feelings of joy or nostalgia – please enjoy. If one of the above applies to you and yet these commercials still evoke a joyful holiday spirit – that is great. But if one of the above applies to you and you find yourself feeling sad, shameful, envious, angry or other similar emotions when you see these commercials please remember that whatever you feel in response is valid. And it is ok to feel it. These commercials are not a reflection of every household. These commercials are just trying to sell a product or service.
Even during times of hardship, for some it is still possible to feel the comfort and joy of the holidays. For some, engaging in holiday routines may feel like a reprieve from whatever difficult thing they are enduring. But it can be self-defeating to seek the perfection depicted in the commercials as a way to erase whatever pain is being felt – trying to erase is different than temporarily escaping.
I’m a big fan of Tara Brach who talks often about the concept of “creating space”. She explains that the goal is not to seek hope or joy in order to “paint over” any feelings of sadness or anger. Instead, the goal through mindful awareness is to see if you can “create space” for things like hope, joy and love, to exist among other feelings like sadness or anger. Too often I hear people going through hardship say that they should “just be grateful” or “just be happy”. This is painting over. And when you paint over, the bottom layer is still there. Except it is now suffocating, and well, when you’re struggling for air you aren’t passive. Instead, those painted over emotions struggle to be noticed in unexpected ways like short tempers, lack of sleep, illness, need for control or over-functioning. By creating space for any and all feelings, you give yourself permission to let all things exist at once.
It can help to redefine the positive emotions and experiences that you want to have this holiday season – within the context of where you are this season of life. A holiday dinner over easy take out may be more pleasing for you this holiday. Not traveling and instead staying home to rest may bring you comfort this season. Perhaps you are obligated to engage in holiday rituals that will not bring you a sense of comfort – if this is the case then please plan to follow them up with an activity that is in fact restorative for you.
This is your winter break – defined by no commercials – but by your own intuition of how to best tend to your needs as you are best able. We should do this any season of life, including the holiday season.