Permission to not be “holly jolly” during the holidays

holidays stress well-being

The winter solstice is this week on Thursday, December 21. It’s the longest day of the year. And the darkest day of the year.

The church I used to play the organ at always held an annual “Blue Christmas” service on the equinox. At first, when I heard about it, I didn’t get it. Weren’t we always supposed to be full of holiday cheer during the holidays, or at least pretend we were? 

But this was a small service intended for those who had harder, less “shiny” feelings about the holiday season.

Maybe they had lost a loved one, or the holidays brought up the deep pain of days, hopes, dreams, or people now gone or things that would never be the same.

Maybe the holidays served as a reminder of painful memories.

Maybe they couldn’t be with those they loved for some reason.

Maybe they or a loved one had a scary health diagnosis, and they were struggling with the fact that this might be their or their loved one’s last holiday.

This service was a small, intimate time together, a precious time for those whose holidays weren’t filled with joy and light and blaring music and effusively happy feelings. 

We are neck-deep in the holiday season, and it's essential to acknowledge a truth often masked by the glitter and buzz of holiday celebrations: for many, this time of year can be particularly challenging. For lawyers and legal professionals, who often work in environments where the pressure to maintain a façade of constant composure is high, recognizing and addressing this complexity is crucial.

The holiday season, contrary to the popular narrative of universal joy and togetherness, can amplify feelings of loneliness, grief, and stress. It's important to foster a work environment where it's not only acceptable but entirely normal to experience a spectrum of emotions, including those that aren't traditionally associated with holiday cheer.

Here are three tips to help lawyers and legal professionals be more sensitive to those for whom the holidays might be a challenging time:

Practice Active Listening: Often, the best way to support someone is by providing a space where they feel heard. Active listening involves more than just hearing words; it’s about understanding and showing genuine interest in the feelings and experiences of your colleagues. Sometimes, a simple, empathetic conversation can be incredibly comforting.

Respect Personal Boundaries: Remember that not everyone may want to participate in holiday festivities. Respect personal boundaries and understand that declining an invitation to a holiday event should not be taken personally. It's essential to create an inclusive environment that allows individuals to engage at their own comfort level. (And remember to set strong, healthy boundaries for yourself, too.)

Offer Flexibility: The end of the year can be a period of high stress, combining work deadlines with personal obligations. Offering flexibility, whether it's in deadlines or work hours, can greatly alleviate stress and show that you value your colleagues' well-being.

Finally - for yourself and for others - it's crucial to destigmatize the feeling of not being perfectly happy during the holidays. It's okay to experience a range of emotions, and acknowledging this can make a significant difference in someone's life. Let's use this season to practice empathy and kindness, making our professional spaces more supportive and inclusive. And remember to offer yourself that same grace, compassion, and gentleness, especially when you aren’t feeling “holly jolly” all the time.

This is an emotionally complicated time of year. Full stop. Period. Don’t expect yourself or those around you to be “okay” all the time. Offer yourself and others grace, compassion, and acceptance of whatever emotions bubble up for you. 

By doing so, we create more compassionate and understanding teams, workplaces, and, ultimately, the legal profession - not just during the holidays but throughout the year.