Reach out and touch someone–especially someone for whom the holidays suck this year

More so than myself, my wife Veronica and her brother Vincent are attached to cherished holiday rituals. Since my in-laws have both passed away, we carry on these rituals in our home.

These rituals provide much joy and not a little sadness. “I lived with Mom,” Vincent remarked out of nowhere. “She died. Now I have my own place.” He can’t convey much about his inner life. He communicates enough to show that the holidays are times of genuine grieving.

His fellow group home residents also have turbulent emotions around the holidays. Some celebrate with close relatives. Others have outlived their caregivers, or have at least outlived these close relationships. This morning, I picked Vincent up for a family trip and Thanksgiving celebration. I chatted with a solitary staff member was preparing a large turkey dinner for several connected home. They will have a nice meal. Yet conditions are Spartan, particularly in these times of fiscal austerity and the state’s nonpayment of its bills. Guys with no close relatives will spend Thanksgiving and Christmas hanging out at home with a skeleton crew. They’ll be safe and well-tended, but probably pretty bored, too.

For many different reasons, in many different ways, the holidays can be hard or sad times for many people. People mourn siblings or parents who are no longer on this earth to celebrate. People mourn broken romances and marriages, too. Career disappointments and economic anxieties can seem especially daunting this time of year. People face physical or mental health concerns, too. Meanwhile, we are commanded to be happy and be grateful and be thankful (and of course to buy lots of stuff) when more ambivalent emotions are likely to take hold.

I don’t mean for this to be a downer post. I myself feel quite blessed this year. Still, not everyone feels the same. This is a good time to reach out and touch someone, to renew a friendship, to lend a helping hand, to share a cup of coffee with someone who doesn’t quite as blessed this holiday season.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

3 thoughts on “Reach out and touch someone–especially someone for whom the holidays suck this year”

  1. Amen, says this athiest.

    Holidays were hard for me, for a long time. Without getting too confessional, I didn't have a very happy childhood, and like many who come from such a background, at first I denied the value of family, and later got it wrong, trying to make my own. Holidays are still complicated. But over the last several years, I've made the effort to make them what I want them to be – a time for reflection, good company, making things, not a little self-indulgence, forgiveness, release. Like most good things, it takes work. My partner and I partake in some family related tradition, but the more important parts now don't look much like a traditional U.S. holiday, tending to involve things like wordworking, painting, ceramics, and this year, 3D modeling/printing and some electronics tinkering. (The wine consumption probably looks a bit European, but only after the soldering irons and dremels are put away, and the cooking, this year, Indian. I pick something I can't cook from scratch every year. I've already learned something between respect and fear for fresh cardamom.) Christmas dinner is a party of close friends, our family of choice. And it keeps getting better every year.

    Especially because I've learned to start experimenting with cooking the new cuisine about the time the annoying holiday music starts playing at stores, giving me enough time to at least not *totally* suck at cooking it. It seems like for better or worse, part of the new tradition is mocking me for my 2007 Ethiopian Mishap, which somewhat abruptly devolved into chinese takeout for 14.

    Good holidays to all, and most especially to anyone who might have a hard time of them: it really can get better. Fuck a bunch of what people are telling you holidays are, with bells on. And a pogo stick. Ask yourself what you want your holiday to be.

    (Wow, I managed to post something here that wasn't attacking Mark for either (d) cheerleading or drug-policy-related selective attention, or Brett for disingenuous (r) trolling. I guess it must be the holidays.)

  2. Amen Harold

    A staple of my youth for which I credit my parents is that at almost every Thanksgiving or Christmas there was someone I didn't know at our table — the neighbor who had just been widowed, the teenager whose parents were in the midst of a nasty divorce, the couple who had just lost their jobs. It was a powerful lesson to us children that the message of these holidays should be put it into action rather than just be gauzy sentiments on greeting cards.

  3. Thanks both of you. I love the idea of having someone new at the table over the holidays. Since Hanukkah is 8 days, that has special opportunities, too.

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