Alone at Christmas

Christmas has been a bittersweet time for me in the last few years. 2008 was the best one I’ve ever had, and solely due to one wonderful young woman. 2009 was the worst, and that wonderful young woman was the cause of that as well. I’ve been single ever since, because only one other woman I’ve ever met could truly compete.

It took me a long time to get over that. In away, I haven’t; you never fall out of love with anyone you’ve given your heart to, after all. But I’ve made terms with it and moved on. In the process, I discovered the worst-kept secret of romance: it sucks to be alone at Christmas.

This year, I’ve noticed even more people in my circles talking about having lost someone, either to death or dissolution, and the pain that brings with Christmas. It’s difficult to manage, because even over St. Valentine’s day, this is the season you feel the pain of the empty spot at the table, on the couch, or by the fireplace. You start wondering how to fill that emptiness, and it seems like nothing ever will. 

I have bad news for you. Nothing ever will fill it.

But this is not the same as saying you’ll always feel this way. You have been dealt a spiritual wound; and whether it’s pain of the body or the soul, it’s hard to feel anything but the pain.

Ever since I started being open about my depression, people have been coming to me for advice, for themselves or because they want to help others. They know I can’t offer a cure; I suffer from it as well. But I’ve come to realize that I offer them something that professionals can’t: the sense that I’ve actually felt what they feel. It’s about the pain, not what caused it. I don’t ask them what happened. Sometimes they tell me; often not. If they want to tell me, they will.

What they want from me, more than anything else, is to know how I deal with it. Not so much the distractions I use, or to find out how quickly they might heal. They want to know how I can stand the pain that seeks to overwhelm me.

The only thing to do is to look for the opposite. When you’re too hot, you seek to be cool; when you’re too cold, you’re drawn to warmth; when you’re hungry, you think of favorite foods.

When you’re alone, so alone you can’t remember what it was like to be with anyone else — even if you’re really in a crowd — you’re drawn to any promise of connection.

That desperation can be a weakness, making you make bad choices. You might rush into a relationship. You might make a bad choice for a significant other. You might take drugs or abuse alcohol. Or you might even push away people, afraid they’ll hurt you even more. Or, perhaps worse, because they have hurt you on top of the depression they don’t understand.

It becomes easy to prefer a world without warmth, because it’s easy to fear being thrown into freezing waters once again. It’s hard to move past the pain that others have caused you.

Rogue, leader of the Cruxshadows, had some good words on that topic when he released this year’s free Christmas track.

The new song is called “Forgiveness (Winter Comes)” and is more somber in its approach to the holidays. My hope is that it will carry some meaning for everyone.  We have all at some point or another dealt with absence, loss, estrangement, or separation from a parent, lover, family member, loved one, or significant other.  The holidays can make us happy when surrounded by the ones we love, but likewise it can also bring about great sadness when dealing with issues of absence or rejection. We often assign blames to others for our unhappy state… we often assign blame to ourselves for the unhappy state of others.   Somewhere in the midst of that understanding, I realized that what is needed at Christmas is the ability and will to forgive each other, as well as ourselves.

And that’s why Christmas is so much more painful than St. Valentine’s Day. The latter just makes you feel like you need a lover. The former makes you remember what it’s like to belong.

It took me a long time to really remember what I should focus on at Christmas. I had had a taste of something far beyond anything I had ever experienced, something that made my rosy childhood memorize of Christmas seem like ash. Going back to nothing more than family squabbles was more than I could stand.

Things went up and down in the last six years. Last year was so bad that I secretly packed a bug-out bag, where if family problems got too much for me I’d just hop in my car and go to a motel.

But that, ironically, was where things began looking up. I tried to figure out what it was that I was missing. I wound up writing an essay on the topic over at Novel Ninja, since that was the only blog outlet I had at the time. What was it that made Christmas so special? And why was it painful? Was it just a cultural artifact that got hung on a religious celebration? Shouldn’t it be enough to go to Mass?

It’s not, because Christmas isn’t just another Mass. It isn’t even a celebration of family, per se. It is a festival of light; of One Who brought light to the darkness, and so we light up the night ourselves. Houses and trees and bushes become festooned with small lights that, together, turn the oppressive darkness into something cheerful.

And as it turned out, last year there were no arguments in my family at all. I never grabbed my bug-out bag. After a few minutes, I didn’t even feel the urge to be alone.

Was it a coincidence? Probably, at least in part. But I know a good chunk of it came from me, simply having a different attitude. Remembering being a little kid and fascinated by Christmas lights. Not the freestanding decorations or dancing Santas or someone spelling out MERRY CHRISTMAS on the lawn; no, the lights, placed over and around the house, like the blood around the door on Passover. Pass by, Darkness; there is nothing here for you this night.

It was the ordinary things, the houses and trees and bushes, lighting them up and turning the darkness into beauty. It was the feeling that you actually can’t be alone when Christmas lights are twinkling.


Is it a cure for depression? No. I offer no cure. But I do offer this balm. That missing person will always leave a hole in your life, because no one will ever be the same. None of us are interchangeable. Yet that does not mean you are no more than that hole. And it will not shrink; you will grow.

You will always bear the scars, but those scars earn you the joys you have ahead. You will gain new scars; and you will do so by daring to find new joys. The one who has never been damaged is the one who has never lived.

Life is pain; anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. And life is joy; anyone who tells you otherwise is stealing something. It’s up to you to give meaning to both.

Elantris Pain

You will grow, change, and adapt. It may not seem like it right now; I know it doesn’t ever seem like it to me when I’m in a deep depression; but the joys to come are worth the pain you suffer now. Don’t let the darkness overtake Christmas. These are the longest nights of the year; defy them. Stand up and shout back that you are here, and you won’t cower in the shadows.

There’s a reason why we don’t pick the warm, bright, sunny days of June to celebrate the birth of Christ. He came in our darkest hour. He always does.

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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4 Responses to Alone at Christmas

  1. jawats says:

    Save the world, O Saviour. For this you have come.
    Set your whole universe aright. For this you have shone
    on me and on the magi and on all creation.
    For see, the magi, to whom you have shown the light of your face
    fall down before you and offer gifts,
    useful, fair and eagerly sought.
    For I have need of them, since I am about
    to go to Egypt and to flee with you and for you,
    my Guide, my Son, my Maker, my Redeemer,
    a little Child, God before the ages.
    -Kontakion on The Nativity of Christ, St. Romanos

    I, too, struggle with depression and anxiety. I strongly recommend this book – – it takes a combination of spiritual and physical approach.

    May the Incarnation of Christ remind us of our Live in Him. Merry Christmas.



  2. Curiosity64 says:

    I forwarded this to my mom. She is really struggling with the loss of my grandma this year.


  3. Pain does lose its power when other things become more important. It took me years to learn that, years to risk letting other things be more important. Then Christ slipped more important things into my life when I wasn’t looking and pain lost its power. I pray it continues to lose its power over you too.

    Merry Christmas.


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