Not everyone enjoys the holidays. For some of us, this time of year dredges up fresh waves of grief over our loved ones who are no longer with us. Some worry about pulling off a picture-perfect celebration or the effect seasonal shopping marathons have on their finances. The pressure to participate in the excesses that have come to define modern holidays is relentless.

I remember two particularly tough holiday seasons. The first, after my husband and I and our two pre-teen daughters moved across the country in the early 1980s, felt wrong on numerous levels. We’d moved from the north, where white Christmases were the norm, to the south, where it might snow briefly once a decade. We found it hard to get excited about the holidays in 80-degree weather. We were miserable until we finally conceded and turned on the air conditioner in November.

Far from other family, we had no social engagements, hardly knew our neighbors and hadn’t yet developed close friends in our new community. The cost of the move precluded traveling to be among familiar people. I was seriously homesick. Looking back, I think I was also depressed. I found no joy in tackling holiday tasks I usually appreciated: addressing greeting cards, decorating, baking, shopping for gifts or attending Advent services. Things seemed pointless and overwhelming.

Having a new church community helped, but we weren’t yet close with any other members. No one thought to include us in their holiday family activities. It was weird to be back in our car just a few minutes after the final worship hymn. Before the move, we’d linger after worship, chatting with friends, making plans to do things. After that first daunting holiday season, we either traveled, hosted family that came to visit us, or spent time with friends formed within our faith family.

Years later, I found myself totally alone at Christmas. By then I was a pastor, with adult daughters who had their own families, and my husband and I were no longer together. The Advent and Christmas church calendar filled my days, but also meant I couldn’t travel to be with out-of-town family. Nor did my family want to visit me only to watch me head off to church, leaving them alone for hours at a time.

That first year totally on my own was an odd mix of too much to do and too much time alone between commitments. Going from Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s felt like an marathon through a land mine of triggered emotions. Everywhere I turned another song, sight or show would flood me with recollections of happier days. At the same time, painful memories would wash over me like the swirling waters of a physical flood, threatening to completely overwhelm me. Tending to the tasks of daily life felt like walking through chest-deep water against a current.

The Rev. Kathryn Haueisen is a retired pastor who spends her time traveling, reading, writing and volunteering.

This excerpted article appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Gather. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.