Feasting on turkey with your family. Hanukkah Harry. Santa. “A Christmas Carol.” Sugar Plum fairies. Lighting candles to celebrate Kwanzaa. Ringing in the New Year!
It’s the holidays! Happy! Happy!
Not so much. Especially during the pandemic, and if you’re queer.
There are always holiday naysayers who dread Thanksgiving, loathe “It’s a Wonderful Life” and shout, “Bah, humbug!”
Yet, in the pandemic, many of us have the “holiday blues” more acutely than we did in past holiday seasons, psychologists and LGBTQ advocates told the Blade in interviews.
The term “holiday blues” is bandied about often. Yet, its meaning isn’t always clear. The “holiday blues” isn’t a mental illness, said Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in private practice in State College, Pa.
“It’s not a diagnosable ailment. It’s a feeling of malaise,” she said, “of anxiety – of discomfort that occurs during the holidays.”
But just because the “holiday blues” isn’t pathological, doesn’t mean that feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness during the holidays aren’t painful.
Our holiday stress is nearly always related to our childhood experiences, Rodino said. “For example, if we grew up with an alcoholic parent, we’ll recall how that parent would ruin the holidays,” she said, “it would start out fine. But, by the end of the night, the parent would be drunk, hostile – angry.”
On the other hand, we may recall our childhood holidays as having been absolutely perfect. “You might remember that your Mom baked 300 cookies. They were the best in the world,” Rodino said. “You’ll feel guilty because your present doesn’t match up to your memories of past perfection.”
The pandemic with its restrictions, illness and financial losses adds an added layer of stress to the holidays, especially for the LGBTQ community and other vulnerable groups.
“One way to deal with holiday stress is to volunteer,” Rodino advised, “to soup kitchens. Include vulnerable people in your Zoom events.”
Don’t be intimidated by past holiday rituals. “Create your own traditions,” Rodino said. “If we did everything like people did in the past, we’d do things like they did in the Middle Ages.”
From Hallmark movies to endless holiday music playlists to ads showing families merrily gathering before the fire, we’re led to expect that the holidays will be filled with happiness and togetherness.
We experience the “holiday blues” when our holidays don’t live up to these cultural expectations, said Nicholas Grant, a clinical psychologist and president elect of GLMA (Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality).
In addition to this stress, many LGBTQ people experience overt or subtle homophobia or transphobia when they gather with their family of origin for the holidays, Grant, who is queer, said.
The pandemic has added layers to holiday loneliness and insecurity.
You can take steps to reduce, if not totally eliminate, holiday stress, Grant added. “Use technology like Zoom to see family and friends who you can’t see in person,” he said.
Be proactive about who you want to see over the holidays, Grant advised. If you feel that connecting with someone in your family would be stressful for you, limit your time with them. “My Dad and I have no relationship as of this year,” Grant said, “because of his behavior and politics. It’s brought up for me: how do I want to experience this holiday season?”
Doing something that’s enjoyable to you and in line with your values is a great way to cope with the holidays, he added, “whether it’s writing poetry, riding a bike, baking bread or volunteering.”
For information on coping with the “holiday blues” or finding a therapist, Grant recommends Psychology Today, psychologytoday.com.
Most cisgender, heterosexual people who go home for the holidays, even if they are of a different faith, are culturally similar to their family of origin, said psychologist Keely Kolmes. “That’s not true for all queer folks,” said Kolmes who identifies as nonbinary. “Their families often direct micro aggressions at them, leaving them feeling isolated.”
Sometimes, homophobia or transphobia can be physically unsafe. But, even subtle micro aggressions, such as a snide comment on a celeb coming out, can be hurtful, they added. (Kolmes uses the pronouns they/them.)
“I advise clients when they go home for the holidays to have an escape plan with a friend or trusted family member,” Kolmes said, “for where they can go or what they can do if things go wrong.”
LGBTQ people seeking support (such as support groups or friendly religious events) during the holidays should contact LGBTQ centers and queer-friendly houses of worship in their communities, Kolmes advised.
We often hear this overwhelming, anti-LGBTQ religious voice, said Michael Vazquez, HRC Religion & Faith Program Director. “Yet, the intensity of that voice is disproportionate,” Vazquez added, “the overwhelming majority of American people of faith are welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ people.”
“Going home – being with the family for Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa – it’s important to remember,” he said, “it’s not antithetical to be both LGBTQ and a person of faith.” (For more information, visit hrc.org/resource/religion-faith.)
Many queer people (especially trans people) are struggling to survive during the pandemic, said Anneliese Singh, a counseling psychologist and chief diversity officer at Tulane University. “I think, too, with this election, during the holidays, many of us are going to have to set boundaries with those of our families who supported Trump,” Singh, who identifies as gender queer, said.
Sometimes Trump supporters separate their votes for Trump from their love for their queer loved ones, she added, “but, for us, a vote for Trump means a vote against ourselves.”
LGBTQ people should reclaim their religious traditions – from Kwanzaa rituals to Advent services, Singh said.
“Another way to move through the ‘holiday blues,’‘ she added, “is to have a daily set of gratitude boxes. Not cheesy gratitude. But gratitude that we’re queer and survived and thrived.”
Singh and her partner connected 10 years ago during the holidays.
“Christmas Eve is a special night for us,” she said, “it’s when we first got together. Every Christmas we think: How do we want to celebrate our relationship?”
Even before the pandemic, the holidays were difficult for queer and trans youth, said Adalphie Johnson, director of programs for SMYAL (Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders). “Some are homeless. Some are in unsafe spaces,” she said, “they’re not able to express themselves as far as clothing, etc.”
Youth are often unable to bring their partners to family holiday gatherings. “The pandemic with its social distancing adds to the social isolation,” Johnson said.
SMYAL is working to create safe virtual holiday events for youth, said Johnson, who is queer. “We’re sending out gift cards so they can order food and virtually eat together,” she added. “We ensure that the young people have all the fixings and trimmings.”
When young people get together with their families, SMYAL advises them to have one or two people they can call or text if they feel unsafe.
During her youth, “the most difficult thing during the holidays was that I didn’t know who in my family – like my aunts – would accept my girlfriend,” Johnson said.
The holidays can be hard for everyone of every age, including LGBTQ elders. Older LGBTQ people are more likely to feel lonely during the holidays because they’re more likely to live alone, be single and not have children, said Bill Gross, assistant director of special programs for SAGE.
SAGE’s services for older LGBTQ people range from a friendly visitor program to a hotline run by volunteers trained in crisis counseling. The hotline, open 24/7, 365 days a year, including the holidays, provides free support in English and Spanish (with translation services in 180 languages). (For information, visit sageusa.org.)
Richard Daniels, a performer, is a member of SAGE’s New York City affiliate. Daniels was in “Help,” a play by poet and writer Claudia Rankine. The play shut down after two previews because of COVID. “The holidays will be no different. We’ll still be in quarantine,” Daniels said.
Daniels and his husband love Thanksgiving. “We’re Jewish. We don’t do much for Hanukkah or Christmas,” he said, “but Thanksgiving’s the one holiday where we love to get together with people — family, friends, out-of-town visitors — people with nowhere to go.”
“We still have much to be grateful for,” Daniels added, “we don’t drink. But we’d love to share a piece of pie on Zoom on Thanksgiving.”