This series I have written for CPTSD Foundation has centered on how celebrating Christmas with our dysfunctional families when we were kids, was like living in hell. Thus, the title.
We have examined truthfully, and perhaps painfully, the facts which made us so miserable and how they affect us today.
However, this article is focused on a more positive note, how to turn our present Christmas’ into peaceful and joyful events.
Letting Go of Faulty Beliefs
The hell we experienced when we were kids in our homes was very real. I wish it were not. However, what do we do now that we are grown up?
Let me state for the record that if you are trying to overcome a severely traumatic childhood on your own, you will fail. Please do not try this alone. It is inordinately painful and you will fail. By not allowing another human being to help you navigate through the dark waters of your past, you are repeating history. Didn’t you spend your entire childhood alone and hurting? Why do that now? Why not change that pattern?
There is a quote which goes something like this, “To get places we have never been, we must do things we have never done…” I realize this is a loose translation of the original quote, however I am sure you understand the overarching concept here.
Do different to feel different.
In therapy, I have learned to feel the pain I either was too afraid to fee or had denied myself to feel then, and to grieve. Once I was allowed to feel this pain, I was able to calm and soothe that little hurting girl finally. I held myself (in my mind and reality) and said words of comfort which calmed myself in the past and present. I made it clear that I would never, ever allow anyone to treat me like that again and that I deserve more. Most importantly, I told me that what happened was in no way my fault.
It took repeatedly soothing myself many times before I finally came to understand deep in my heart that those days were over, and now, what happens is entirely up to me.
I had to let go of the fantasy that I would someday wake up and find my family to be like the Bradys, and that the behaviors of my family were my fault.
I had also let go of one more crucially faulty piece of reasoning—that I can never be happy today because of what happened yesterday.
Yesterday’s Pain Need Not Hamper Today’s Joy
To be realistic, the pain of what happened during those Christmases long ago will never be totally forgotten. You would have to experience total amnesia from a horrendous accident for that to happen. However, the pain from yesterday need not hamper today’s joy.
The answer is simple (at least in concept), we need to replace those horrible memories with new ones.
I know that what I’m suggesting may seem counterproductive or even insulting. Shouldn’t we remain miserable because of what happened in our pasts? Why should I allow myself to feel joyful when I had such a miserable childhood?
I understand those thought processes. We all go through stages where we want to be angry and hang onto the pain. After all, the pain I have now proves what I went through back then is really real. This is common and to be expected when first recovering from painful and traumatic childhood experiences.
However, eventually, if you allow healing to happen, you will find those thought processes to be counterproductive and you will truly crave better for yourself.
Making new memories with those you love today is enormously helpful in letting go of trauma from the past and allowing yourself to be happy despite it.
Make New Christmas Memories with Loved Ones
Because we had such a traumatic time in our childhoods with our families, why not spend time and effort making great memories for our kids. I’m not advocating for spending vast amounts of money or for putting out so much effort trying to make their Christmas perfect. I’m talking about some simple and fun ways to make great memories for the kids and for yourself.
Let’s examine together some new traditions we can all implement to help erase the bizarre memories we have of our childhood Christmases which will make great memories our kids will remember forever.
The Scents of Christmas. There are tons of ways to make smells which will remind you and your kids of love, fun, and togetherness. You can bake cookies, make homemade bread, buy scented pine cones, or even a scented Christmas tree.
If you have a fireplace, light a nice fire to fill the house with the scent of burning firewood to make your home feel, well, homey.
Don’t worry if the cookies turn out all lumpy or if your bread fails to rise. These traditions will still make some fun memories as you and your kids laugh and together, make fun of the mistakes. Eat them anyway so you all can laugh at how bad (or surprisingly good) they taste.
The Sights of Christmas. Depending on where you live, there are different experiences you can share which are the sights of Christmas. The first thing to do if you want to have a welcoming visual “Christmasy” air to your home is to put up a tree and decorate it together. Have the kids make ornaments from whatever materials meet their developmental stage and help them hang the handmade ornaments on the tree. Allow the kids to put on the garland and the tinsel.
Don’t stress over whether the tree turns out perfect or even pretty. It’s the experience of being together and having fun that matters.
The Gift That Keeps Giving. As a family, go to the nearest discount store and buy some small gifts. Purchase hats, gloves, scarves, socks, and small trinkets for both men and women.
After returning home, help the kids wrap up each item individually, bows and all. Then take the hats, gloves, scarves, and socks to the homeless on the street or to a local homeless shelter. You can choose to be anonymous and leave the presents on park benches where you know the homeless spend their time, or you can walk right up to them as a family and hand these wrapped gifts to them.
Then, you can take some of the trinkets you wrapped up and go visiting the neighbors. If you know someone in your neighborhood who is elderly, visit them first giving them the gifts without accepting anything in return. After the elderly, just go door to door spreading cheer.
To make your gift giving even more memorable, sing Christmas carols to those you are giving the presents to.
Just think of how you and your kids will feel after completing these feats of charity. Talk about replacing old sad memories with new happy ones! These new memories are truly the gift that keeps on giving.
Go Sightseeing. Nothing is more fun than going out in the car during the holiday season and looking at the decorations other people have put up. Spend an hour in the car driving about and ewwing and ahhing over the bright and often unique ways people have found to spread Christmas joy.
What If I Am Alone at Christmas? What Then?
I have no children or spouse, so I have had to work hard to help myself make new and lasting memories to replace the old. It isn’t easy to be alone on a holiday which many see as a joyful family time. However, there are some ways to make your Christmas joyful despite being alone.
Go to the Store. I’m not talking about getting involved in the melee of Christmas shopping here. What I’m suggesting is to go and observe people. It’s much more fun than it sounds! Sit in a position where you can observe folks as they hustle, and bustle while doing their Christmas shopping and make up stories in your mind about them.
You will be surprised how much fun this can be. I have done this many a time and not just at Christmas time. I always feel amused and gleeful as I sit unobserved and make up funny stories about people I do not know.
Give to Needy Children. If you want to have fun replacing memories when you are alone at Christmas, then this suggestion is the one for you. Go to a business or store which displays names of needy children on a Christmas tree and ask them for an entire family of children.
Then, go out and enjoy yourself thoroughly in the toy section of the department store. You talk about fun! Because you have taken an entire family of children, you aren’t limited to buying just one toy, you can purchase all you want. You can also buy a stocking and goodies to stuff them with for each child.
I also purchase a gift for the parent of the kids. I do this by buying a small gender-neutral gift.
After you have made your purchases, go home, put on some Christmas carols, light a lovely candle and wrap those presents. Enjoy the process and giggle as you imagine the faces of these kids on Christmas morning!
Although you will never see who you have purchased the gifts for, just the act of purchasing and giving these gifts will truly bring a smile to your face every time you think about in the following years.
Spend Christmas Nurturing Yourself. You will notice I did not say indulging yourself. That’s because indulging can mean drinking or other unhealthy activities. Nurturing yourself is quite different.
Nurturing yourself can include many things, and I’m going to make a short list to get you started.
Give Yourself Hugs. I don’t mean necessarily that you must physically hug yourself, although that I do and that would be nice. There are other ways to give yourself cuddles during the Christmas season.
- Put on your favorite music and sing your heart out.
- If you can, save up some money and treat yourself to a few nights in a hotel in another town.
- Buy a special present for yourself. Make sure it is something you really want and not something you necessarily need. Wrap it up and open it on Christmas morning.
- Buy yourself the toy you always wanted when you were small. Even if you are old like me, you’re sure to find it on eBay.
- Binge watch your favorite movies. Make sure they are comedies or light-hearted drama.
Ground Yourself Firmly in Today
There will inevitably be flashbacks of the horror that was your childhood during the making of new memories, but these flashbacks don’t have to run your life. Nor do they need to relegate you to living swallowed up by your grief.
Allow yourself to experience the flashbacks and their accompanying emotions but afterward ground yourself back in today.
Acknowledge the grief and then reorient yourself to where and when you are today. You are no longer living in a loud, dysfunctional household where the adults were preoccupied with harming their children rather than loving them. Now you are all grown up and in control of your environment and how you treat yourself.
The Moral of the Story
Whether you are religious or spiritual or do not necessarily identify with either, Christmas time is a spiritual event. There can be no denying that the ghosts of Christmas haunt our homes during this season of giving. Which ones spend time in your home and mind are up to you.
We all have the same two choices.
Will you entertain the ghosts of the past full of anger, fear, and dread? Or will you enjoy the season filling it with new memories for yourself of love and peace?
Making Christmas time a joyful experience after you have lived through adverse childhood experiences takes effort. The old dread will always begin to creep in as November arrives every year, but by having made new traditions with either yourself or your chosen loved ones, you will have ammunition to fight back.
The moral of the story?
I’ll let some quotes from some popular Christmas programs explain what the moral of the story of this series of articles on surviving Christmas is all about.
A quote for Christians, from A Charlie Brown Christmas:
A quote for Christians, from A Charlie Brown Christmas:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Indeed, the Christ child is the reason Christmas was invented. Not to celebrate the lights, food, and presents but to celebrate the arrival of a very special person who has changed the world with his revolutionary teachings of loving your neighbor.
A quote for those of you who celebrate Hanukah, from The Polar Express:
“Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” — The Conductor (Tom Hanks)
Hanukah is a time to celebrate miracles and there can be no greater miracle than experiencing peace of mind during the holiday season. The miracle of love whether you are alone or with your family is what Hanukah is all about.
A quote for those of you who celebrate Kwanzaa, from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas:
“He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas, he thought… doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps… means a little bit more!” – Narrator (Boris Karloff)
Kwanzaa means more than just lighting candles and eating a feast. It is a celebration of heritage and spirituality. What better way to experience Kwanzaa than with the people you love who are in your life today showing them love and tenderness.
A quote for those of you who are not religious, from A Charlie Brown Christmas:
“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
Ah yes, we all need a little love do we not? Just like the small tree that nobody wanted in the Charlie Brown special, we can change our reactions to the holidays by spending time propping them up with much self-love. By wrapping ourselves up in all the love and understanding we can muster, we can change our outlook of what Christmas means and turn an ugly experience into a joyful one.
Christmas will be here tomorrow. We here at CPTSD Foundation want to send you our warmest wishes for you and yours to have a happy and joyful Christmas.
Remember, you are never alone. We understand how you feel and where you are in your healing because we have been there ourselves.
If you find yourself having trouble during this next week, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
From our hearts to yours, Happy Holidays!