Years ago, my mother faithfully sent me a large box just before Christmas containing almost the same assortment of gifts: underwear, socks, a necktie, button-down dress shirts, a tin of homemade cookies, a notebook with a box of pens, an envelope of recent family photographs, a check from “mom & dad” that kindly reflected cost of living increases, and her legendary fruitcake, made moist and lively having been preserved in Bahamian rum in their cellar for several months. I cherish those thoughtful and loving offerings. They were a welcome ritual and made a sometimes solitary holiday, a more cheerful experience.

Many of us have been caught up in celebratory occasions that promise to be joyful. But it is apparent that countless people do not feel “joy” during these times. For many, hyped holiday cheer brings out depression and anxiety, often referred to as the “holiday blues.”

Frequently, these celebrations of togetherness trigger bleak images of the past, present and future. There are certainly tangible reasons for this seasonal melancholy during what British economics journalist Edward Lucas characterized as “over-rated disturbances of routine.” Time is stretched out as we fret over obligatory gift shopping, holiday parties, family obligations, expensive travel arrangements, and mailing cards and packages.

With tighter money belts, many people simply can’t afford the expense of maintaining contrived happiness. Corporate America is relentless in perpetrating a holiday consumer environment. Spending lavishly is linked with sharing, making it easy to forget that these should primarily be human experiences and not frantic online buying sprees. Rising unemployment, layoffs, reduced incomes, poverty and homelessness are not uppermost considerations in holiday advertising campaigns.

Loneliness is a human condition we all share. During this time of year, it can be felt more acutely for countless reasons, such as the loss of a loved one or an estrangement between friends, which can contribute to an enhanced sense of desolation.

For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, holidays are correlated with days of less sunlight. Seasonal affective disorder is a reality for many Americans, and it is directly associated with diminished winter sunlight. Basic symptoms are a drop in serotonin, melatonin or both, often resulting in lower energy levels.

Holiday blues is a unique social ill largely based on how we perceive our lives and act during a particular time of year. Coping strategies include reminding ourselves that holidays, whether secular or religious, should not be materially-based, reaching out to others in need, limiting impulsive spending, leaving behind negative associates, taking a long walk, reading an inspiring book, cooking a meal from another culture, further developing our perceived talents and counting our blessings, small and large.

A new year is upon us filled with ritualistic dance parties, masquerade balls, championship football games and the spectacle of a glittering ball drop at Times Square in New York City just before midnight. Champagne and cakes are served. Lovers, friends and strangers kiss and hug, honk horns, ring bells, blow through paper whistles and promise themselves and others all sorts of things, often forgotten by dawn.

New Year’s Day is one of the oldest days imbued with special meaning, and one of the only ones celebrated throughout the world. It was first observed in ancient Babylon with the first new moon after the vernal equinox, when the planting of new crops and blossoms heralded a kind of rebirth. This probably led to the modern trend of making resolutions at the end of the year, such as quitting smoking, losing weight, being less selfish or critical, and so on. But making vows of self-improvement is more difficult when we put an artificial time frame on them.

New Year’s resolutions reflect our assumption that we can control and change the direction of our futures single-handedly. However, unwanted behavior patterns rarely can be changed overnight. The trick might be to make more realistic and shared goals for each new stage in life.

As we wind down the holiday season singing “Auld Lang Syne” — a Scottish melody from a Robert Burns poem, translated as “old long since,” roughly meaning “old times past” or “good old days” — we might worry less about making ourselves over and focus more on working collectively to make our world a better place for everyone.

What better cure for the holiday blues?

Leigh Donaldson’s writing appears in numerous national and international publications. He lives in Portland.

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