As I walked briskly through downtown on a cold January morning, I asked my friend, a family lawyer, a typical small-talk question: “How are things at work?”
“It’s our busiest time of year,” he responded, “so I’m currently getting crushed.”
“Really?” I said. “That surprises me.”
“The week kids return to school following the holiday break, our office gets hammered with divorce inquiries,” he said glumly.
Initially, I was shocked. Yet as I thought more, I realized his experience as a family lawyer matched my own as a counselor and pastor. My email inbox, text messages, and voicemail go crazy in the days and weeks following the new year. Before you know it, if someone wants a counseling appointment, they are being booked into the spring.
Five Shades of January Blue
Why do so many people feel crushed after the holidays? Why are so many people hurt, sad, angry, and confused coming off a season usually marked by joy, peace, and anticipation? In my counseling, pastoring, and experience with my own heart, I’ve encountered at least five reasons January can hit us so hard.
First, some are simply exhausted coming out of the holiday season. We planned and attended parties. We acquired gifts. We made mad dashes to stores because someone was left off the list, or one kid had too few items. The church calendar teemed with a plethora of worship services and events from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, half of which required some sort of extra practice or manpower. The pace of these responsibilities and opportunities, especially in contrast to the rest of the year, can seem breakneck, leading to an exhausted, strung-out feeling when the second week of January hits.
Second, the holidays themselves can become the foundation of our hope rather than just an expression of our joy. We can end up hoping in the sights and sounds, the people and presents, instead of simply enjoying these gifts. Anticipation of favorite flavors, favorite carols, favorite people, and what we hope will be our favorite new possession can propel us through this busy season. But when the food is eaten and the last carol has been sung, when people return to their normal lives and the presents turn out to be just more stuff to fill our homes, our spirits can crash as our hope seems to evaporate.
Third, do not discount the power of darkness. I’m not speaking metaphorically about Satan and his minions; I mean actual darkness. In the Northern Hemisphere, the short days and long nights can dramatically influence our mood and energy level. This change is just beginning to happen when the holidays arrive, but as we emerge from the holiday season, the nights are long and cold, the days are often dreary, and the world around us seems bare and lifeless as winter has had its effect. All of nature seems to reflect something of our internal assessment that life is a sad, dismal affair.
Fourth, while the parties, worship services, and service opportunities may be demanding, they do get us around others consistently. Conversely, once the holidays are over and life returns to normal, many of us find ourselves living our modern lives of relative isolation. No more groups of people laughing and merrymaking — instead, one day bleeds into the next while we retreat to our secluded abodes, and the voices of friends and family are replaced by the digitized voices of our favorite on-screen characters.
Last, while the holidays can be a time of exuberant joy and excitement, for many they turn into another season of disappointment. Family interactions are difficult and painful. Husbands and wives who hope the holidays will provide respite from seasons of bitterness and disdain discover new occasions for those feelings to grow stronger. The hustle of busyness can hide a desperate loneliness. Movies, songs, and made-for-television specials trumpet how happy this season was meant to be, and you feel anything but.
Restoring Our Souls
If the holidays can leave us feeling exhausted, hopeless, dark, lonely, and disappointed, what are we to do? Praise the Lord, he does not leave us alone to muster ourselves through the January blues. Through his word, he gives us guidance for how to restore our souls.
If exhaustion is one of the primary culprits of the post-holiday crash, then one of its antidotes is genuine rest. By genuine, I do not mean simply ceasing activities, as that often accelerates the decline. Rather, I mean intentionally engaging in those activities that restore the soul, bring peace, and reinforce the safety we have under the restful yoke of Christ (Matthew 11:28–30). Putting ourselves at the feet of Christ intentionally — through worship, prayer, scriptural meditation, fellowship, singing, and even serving — strengthens and enlivens our souls.
“If exhaustion is one of the primary culprits of the post-holiday crash, then one of its antidotes is genuine rest.”
At the same time, rest is not merely a spiritual reality, but a physical one. When the fleeing, exhausted Elijah was so tired he wished his life away, God granted him the physical gifts of sleep and food (1 Kings 19:4–8). The holidays bring with them many added tasks, late nights, and imbalanced meals. If you are feeling exhausted from this season, allow your body as well as your soul a season of recovery.
The holidays are a season of joy, and rightly so. But when a passing joy becomes the foundation of our hope, we set ourselves up for disappointment, hurt, and hopelessness. If you fail to find hope in the wake of the holidays, it may be time to readjust your heart’s focus beyond the holidays themselves.
The shining star over Bethlehem points us to the empty tomb in Jerusalem: what began in a wooden manger finds fulfillment on a wooden cross. Only when our hearts are swept up by the hope of our risen and ascended Savior will the holiday season not be the end of our joy but merely its beginning.
As the season’s darkness lingers, and our bodies and souls seem to languish, many of us need to be more intentional about finding light. As with rest, this truth is both spiritual and physical. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — and the more common subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder (SSAD) — may seem silly to some, but many who live in regions where sunlight is sparse know its effects. Recovering light physically may include getting outside while the sun is out, using daylight lamps, and even taking vitamins.
Spiritually, recovering light means bathing our souls in the glittering beauty of the gospel. Isaiah pleads with his hearers, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:5) — and Jesus, twice in the Gospel of John, affirms, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). Someday, when he returns to be with his people, we will live in a city that knows no darkness: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). That lamp will abolish SAD and all dark-driven sadness. Until that day, our souls need the Son as much as our bodies need the sun. Do not let the darkness of the season rob you of the light to be found in worship.
If you find yourself down because the season’s gatherings have ceased, and life has returned to its lonely norm, strive to reconnect in meaningful ways. While holiday get-togethers are fun, they have limited ability to provide the sort of “one-another” support Scripture is so interested in creating (see, for example, Romans 12:10; Galatians 6:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:11).
“Genuine Christian community is the reality to which all other get-togethers can only point.”
God made us to belong to a group of believers with whom we can be candid in the joys and sorrows, in the crushing stress and sheer boredom of life. Locating these communities may be difficult. Connecting with them may be awkward. And meeting with them may be inconvenient. Nonetheless, genuine Christian community is the reality to which all other get-togethers can only point.
Many of us struggle to keep our expectations in check when we are inundated with the message that the holidays should be the greatest season of joy and satisfaction. No reality, on this side of glory, can measure up to such a fairy tale. While the season may bring some special joys, for the most part, our lives and the people in them will continue to be what they were before the holidays. Contentious relationships will likely continue to be so, and lives that cannot be satisfied by the things of this earth will return to their normal level of discontentment.
But we are not consigned to frustration, hurt, or even boredom. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians,
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Philippians 4:11–12)
How does Paul accomplish such personal resilience? By nurturing his relationship with Jesus Christ and setting his expectations on a life that reflects the character of Christ, even in hunger and need (Philippians 4:13). The key to not getting crushed in a disappointing holiday season is to reshape our hearts to find ultimate satisfaction not in the trifles of this world, fickle and frail as they are, but in the glories of the next. For there, and there alone, will our expectations not only be met, but abundantly exceeded.