When you think of Christmas, what images spring to mind? Dubbed ‘the festive season’, it’s a time of year that is steeped in tradition – and those traditions all centre upon celebration. We turn on the Christmas tunes as we wrap gifts in pretty paper and brightly-coloured bows. We drape Christmas trees with shimmering tinsel while the annual pudding steams on the stove. We are surrounded by twinkling lights and the bright smiles of children who count down the days to Santa Claus’ visit. All around us appears joyful as, ever since childhood, we have come to know this period as the season of joy.


Dubbed ‘the festive season’…But what happens when we don’t feel that sense of joy?

But what happens when we don’t feel that sense of joy? What happens when the mere mention of Christmas brings shivers of dread rather than thrills of excitement; when even the thought of getting into the festive spirit requires a Trojan effort? What about those for whom Christmas is the furthest thing from ‘the most wonderful time of the year’?

For when loved ones traditionally gather together, the absence of someone special who has passed on can leave us with complex emotions. How do we celebrate joy and togetherness when someone who was so integral to those celebrations has now passed on? Christmas without a loved one can be unbearable, and even the brightest lights and most heartfelt sentiments cannot shake a grief so deep-rooted.

At a time when we are grieving – whether our loss is recent or enduring from years ago – how do we simply get through a season that calls for us to put on our best face, but where our most profound sadness and loneliness are so close to the surface?

We can look to the Christmas wreath for inspiration. The simplest of all the decorations that we associate with Christmas, the wreath is a staple symbol of the season. At night, when the curtains are closed and the lights are switched off, the humble wreath, hanging on doors all over our community, is a warm and fitting way of acknowledging the season.

But have you ever considered the significance of the wreath in its design? Typically made from evergreen foliage, the wreath is circular in shape; faithfully unbroken and unchanging, just like the memories of our loved ones and the impact they have had in our lives. And just as the wreath is circular in design, so too is our grief in its progression – it will change over the years but it will always live with us. If grief is as natural and circular as the wreath, then why would we – or anyone else  – expect it to pause for Christmas?


Typically made from evergreen foliage, the wreath is circular in shape; faithfully unbroken and unchanging, just like the memories of our loved ones

There are many people around the country and, indeed around the world, who do not enjoy celebrating Christmas and other seasonal festivities on account of their grief. Indeed, while you may be feeling like the odd one out for not getting into the Christmas spirit, you are not alone – so many others are currently filled with dread in anticipation of the weeks ahead.

What you need to know right now, is that it’s ok not to celebrate. Your feelings and your grief are as valid at this time of the year as they are on an anniversary, a birthday, a special occasion, or even just a particularly difficult Tuesday. While society tends to put a timeline on our grief, our mourning process is completely unique to us. So, while consideration is typically made during the ‘first’ of any significant date – for example, in Ireland, we are not expected to send greeting cards on the first Christmas after losing a loved one – there is no standard or expectation for anything beyond this.

As with any other traditions in our lives, we can at times feel the burden of having to ‘go through the motions’ at Christmas; to put up the tree, host the family dinner, and find the perfect gift for friends and loved ones. However, why do we continue to ignore our natural instincts and push down our true emotions for the sake of tradition? If it’s the burden of tradition that is forcing us to neglect our true thoughts and feelings at this delicate time of the year, then surely it’s time to start some new ones?

In an age where we are being advised more and more frequently to mind our mental health, this seems the perfect time to face the festive season with an extra helping of self-compassion. While navigating our way through grief, it is never more important to listen to our hearts; if the traditions of old and the noise of the festivities are too much for us, no matter what stage of the grieving process we find ourselves in, perhaps it’s time to strip things back and focus on nourishing the soul.

It’s by peeling back the layers and all the colour and buzz of Christmas as we know it, that we find the true meaning of the season: cherishing time spent with loved ones, and the true gift of togetherness. And by redefining what Christmas means to you, and how you choose to mark it – whether that’s by simplifying the festivities or removing yourself from them completely – you are honouring yourself and your loved ones who have passed on in the truest sense.

In those moments where you feel the pressure to feel or act in a certain way this Christmas, look to the wreath for assurance that you are exactly where you are supposed to be; riding out the circle of life how you know best. Before you know it, spring will be with us once again, its first buds sprouting fresh hope for the future.

Jane Haynes

December 2021