How to Get Into the Holiday Spirit When You’re Having a Rough Time

The holiday season is traditionally a time for joy and celebration. Family and friends gather together. Homes are decorated, parties are planned, and gifts are exchanged. But the season can also have another side — one that feels more somber than festive. When my grandmother passed away around Thanksgiving a few years ago, it was hard to summon up holiday cheer. While still mourning her death, I found it difficult to get into the spirit of the season. Still, I was determined to try. 

I learned a lot during that time about how important it is to find joy even when things are hard. Here’s how I did it: 

Honor traditions

When I was a kid, I always looked forward to going to my grandparents’ house to see my relatives on Christmas Eve. We would eat dinner as a family, open presents, and attend midnight Mass. These traditions took on a new meaning as time went on and things changed. Although my grandparents have passed on, my brother moved overseas, and my cousins got married and started new traditions with their spouses, the remaining family members still get together. Because there are fewer people present and it’s a little less chaotic, there are more opportunities to connect on a deeper level. I have realized that traditions — whether they’ve been long-established or are brand new — provide me with a sense of grounding and peace. 

Be creative

Since I was a teen, I’ve embraced the holidays as a time to let my creativity flourish. Baking cookies or cooking, decorating my home, or making homemade presents are all activities that help to put me in the holiday mood. A few years ago, I made some small Christmas wreaths for a few close friends. I found inexpensive supplies at a local craft store and personalized them in styles that I thought each person would like. It was a time-consuming project, but it gave me a sense of satisfaction and brought joy to those who received them. 

Reach out

If you know of someone who is far away from home, or doesn’t have family they can spend time with, include them in your holiday celebrations or plan something special together. Sometimes, just being with friends or loved ones can lift a person’s spirits. If that’s not possible, make a point of calling them on the holiday to let them know they aren’t forgotten. On Christmas, I call my uncle who lives across the country. We catch up and share our latest news. He has an amazing sense of humor and always makes me laugh. While email and texting are efficient, nothing can beat the sound of hearing someone’s voice. I also send Christmas cards to friends who don’t live nearby to let them know that they are in my thoughts. 

Help out

Though the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s are often busy and seem to fly by, find whatever time you can to help others. There are ample opportunities to lend a hand, from volunteering with an established charity like a local soup kitchen or a national animal rescue organization like the Humane Society to simply keeping your radar up for chances to be helpful to others throughout your day. To find charitable organizations who could benefit from your help, visit: Volunteer Match or All for Good.

One of my friends helps to feed the homeless by working at a soup kitchen on Christmas Eve. Another collects toiletries to donate to a women’s shelter. What may seem like a small act of kindness can be greatly appreciated by those in need. Helping others brings the true spirit of the season to life in tangible ways. 

Make new memories

I still remember how I felt as a child when I jumped out of bed and dashed downstairs to see what Santa had left under the tree — and if he ate the snacks I put out. (Apparently, he really does like chocolate chip cookies.) It wasn’t just discovering the presents themselves that was so much fun, but the experience of anticipation and surprise. 

As an adult, I try to retain that sense of joy with whatever new memories I have the opportunity to create by staying present in the moment and remembering how quickly time passes. As Christmas approaches, I look forward to seeing my 95-year-old grandmother and hearing more stories about what life was like when she was a young woman. I savor each holiday I get to spend with her. 


When all is said and done, allow yourself to sit back and enjoy the moment. Though the build up to the holidays can feel hectic (and a bit exhausting), the days themselves pass quickly each year. Take time to savor the moments and allow yourself to appreciate the reasons why we celebrate. I give myself permission to take it easier – for me, this means nestling in with movies and good books – during the week between Christmas and New Year’s in order to recharge for the year to come. 

It can be easy to feel melancholy and overwhelmed during this time of year, especially if you or your family have recently experienced difficulties or loss. But, however you choose to spend your holidays, the season offers many opportunities to remember loved ones no longer with us, to connect in meaningful ways with those who are, and to make new memories while honoring the old.

Originally published on December 12, 2019.

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Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in 12th Street, The Manifest-Station, Two Cities Review, The Establishment, The Oleander Review, Bustle and Ravishly. She is working on a memoir about coming of age with a chronic illness.