This week, as Advent ends and Christmas nears, people experience an assortment of feelings. In the northern hemisphere, when the Winter Solstice — the day when the night is the longest and daylight is the shortest, which falls this year on Dec. 21 — arrives, some people are not feeling as much joy and contentment as they might like. A friar, who is a physician, recommends ways to cope with the stresses of the season and encourages readers to escape the doldrums of the winter season by discovering joy.
Since the time we were children, there are few things that are more “Christmas” than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The carol referred to in his 1843 gem is titled “God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen,” in just those words. However, the first line of the lyrics actually reads, “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.” The offending comma is often overlooked. Aware of the comma factor, the carol continues, “gentlemen let nothing you dismay.”
For friars, the time between Thanksgiving and New Year is laden with demands, just the thought of which can make us feel overwhelmed and even inadequate. After all, we don’t want to disappoint people; we never have. In the past, being surrounded by friends, family and fun made the holidays a wonderful time. But the season can also generate pressures and situations that undermine health. And, gentlemen, this is something that will dismay! But these demands may not be the underlying cause of such holiday blues.
Physically living in the northern hemisphere, and especially in the northern part of the northern hemisphere, from the Outer Banks to New England, the holiday time can be particularly challenging to wellness. The sunny days of summer and fall are but a memory in early winter. Scientists have found that a chemical, serotonin (a neurotransmitter), in the brain of many people living in northern latitudes, may not be optimally produced. In addition, certain hormones, specifically melanin, may not be produced which may interfere with sleep-wake cycles. Both of these may be responsible for bringing about a condition which is called winter-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder (WO-SAD).
Dealing with Seasonal Challenges
The symptoms of WO-SAD include: depression, hopelessness, anxiety, and loss of energy, heavy feeling in arms and legs, social withdrawal, oversleeping, and a craving for foods high in carbohydrates (including alcohol), weight gain, and difficulty concentrating. All of this can translate into putting on a few unwanted pounds — just what you did not want to do in the first place! All the carefully planned diets seem to go to wrack and ruin during this time around Christmas.
No specific gene has been identified to cause WO-SAD. Those who are already predisposed to depression will further suffer from WO-SAD. However, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health have pioneered the use of bright incandescent light as a successful treatment. The simple exposure to light bulb stirs up the waning brain substances. Luckily, there are other, easy-to-do activities that may also ‘brighten’ your outlook during season and redefine the holidays as joyful. There are things that can be done that remind you that you are still in charge of your own wellness. Your own mind and body can provide treatment for physical and spiritual holiday blues.
First of all, just because you’ve always done something before, or it’s the “only thing to do during the season,” does not oblige you to continue, especially if it overwhelms you. The best things in life are free, so walk outside in the bright winter light of day. Enjoy the beauty of the winter season. Engage your own physical and spiritual muscles – exercise and meditate. Above all, do not be dismayed, gentlemen, by your condition.
Surely this Christmas season, God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen will be part of the many repertoires of carols you will hear. The composer addresses not merry gentlemen, but rather a dismayed lot. He does so by unraveling the nativity narrative. Right there, in the middle of the carol, we hear of the Virgin, the babe in the manger, the arrival of the angels, but there is special attention to another, rather dismayed group, the shepherds. Shepherds of biblical times had a difficult, if not depressing, life. This dismayed group, the carol reminds us, was called to delight; the delight of gazing on the Savior. This glimpse allowed them to drink in the truth of fact that divine incarnation has destroyed the power of Satan.
As we deal with the dismay of long winter nights, or holiday blues, and of falling short of personal goals, we are led from dismay to delight by walking with the Bethlehem shepherds to gaze upon Christ. Like wandering sheep, we are back home and yet once again discover joy. Let nothing you dismay.
— Fr. Matthew, a resident of Holy Name of Jesus Friary in New York City, is a professor of anatomy at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. He is chair of the HNP Wellness Committee.
Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to submit reflections about holidays, feast days and other topics of a timely nature. Those interested in submitting an essay for consideration for a future issue ofHNP Today should contact communications director Jocelyn Thomas by email at email@example.com. The previous reflection, by James Sabak, OFM, was published in the Dec. 4 issue of HNP Today.