On Thanksgiving morning, I got my start on writing my Christmas cards. I like to say something in the cards, although one thing I’ve noticed is that in the age of social media, my world has shrunk. Virtually everyone I wanted to send a card to is on a social media site like Facebook, and knows everything I’ve been up to this year. Only a small handful of people — maybe six or seven — don’t use these sites, and that Christmas card I’m writing out is the first time I’ve reached out to them in a year.
In those instances, I like to “catch up,” in a sense — to let them know what my 2014 was like. It’s always an odd thing to ponder: how do you sum up a whole year in a small card?
I have friends who solve it by sending out a one-or-two page letter that tells you everything: where they went on vacation this year, what their health problems were, what the kids and grandkids were up to, etc. I avoid going into that much detail.
One thing I did realize as I was sitting there, with the card in my hand and a pen in the other, is that 2014 was, clear and away, the happiest year I’ve had in a very long time — mainly drama free, with no rough waves coming across the ocean, and more like watching a beautiful lake where the water is calm and still. I haven’t had a year this enjoyable since perhaps 2009.
But as soon as I realized that, I came upon a dilemma, one I really hadn’t thought about much until 2012. Quite simply, as I prepared to send out those cards with their cheery messages, their wishes for joy in the season and so on, I wondered whether I was about to mail out something that the recipient would find deeply offensive.
Now, I’m not talking about the folks who — for mainly political reasons — find the term “Christmas” offensive (as opposed to the more religiously-neutral ‘happy holidays’). I’m mostly well aware of which friends I have who say Bah humbug every year when the Christmas lights come out and the trees go up, and know not to send them a card with that word in it.
Instead, as I sat down to begin writing out my cheery, happy, life-is-beautiful thoughts in those warm and fuzzy cards, I wondered for the first time if I was about to hurt anyone’s feelings through a message of happiness and joy.
That may sound paradoxical in a season that is supposed to be all about those two words, but I know from experience that it can also be one of the hardest times of the year to get through emotionally. If you’re going through a rough time in your life, nothing compounds the pain more harshly than to feel completely left out of the joy of the season, to feel so little hope when the people around you are all smiles and excitement.
I should know. That’s exactly where I was in December 2012.
I don’t have a particularly exceptional story to offer. The great recession started in 2008, and the field of journalism was as hard hit as any industry. At the time I was an editor for a newspaper called The Reporter, but I managed to survive the wave of layoffs that hit my company in 2008 and 2009.
My luck ran out in the fall of 2010, when I was among 28 people who got their pink slips. At the time, jobs in journalism were, to put it kindly, totally scarce, so I set off on my own as a freelancer. I discovered two things: there are plenty of folks eagerly looking for freelance writers for a whole wide variety of projects; and few if any of them had much money to spend compensating you for your work.
Nevertheless, I trudged along, like thousands of other downsized journalists, making money where I could until the economy improved. The work kept coming in, and while I wasn’t earning anywhere near what my old salary had been, the checks kept arriving.
What I never expected was October of 2012, when every single contract I had got cancelled in one dreadful month. As it turns out, that wasn’t out of the ordinary; I know plenty of other freelancer writers who have gone through the same thing. Everyone suddenly claims they simply can’t afford you anymore.
My misery index was compounded by the fact that I had applied for three different full time jobs, did interviews that seemed to go well for all three — and then on a fateful Friday afternoon, all three — all three — emailed me to say thanks but no thanks. In a split second, I was completely, totally unemployed, earning not a single dime, with no clear prospects.
Anyone who has gone through this knows how torturous it is — all the anxiety you pile on yourself about your future, all the fears you have that the tide will never turn, all the harsh questions you ask yourself about why this is happening to you. I started taking a series of part-time or seasonal, and very low skill, jobs to stay busy and bring in some money, but through November and December of 2012, that’s all there was. Nobody seemed to even be advertising for anything full time, or for professional skills.
So I went into the holiday season in one of the worst funks I’ve ever had in my life. I wanted more to anything to withdraw entirely — to hide in my room, and not let anyone see what a failure I felt like I had become. The pain was always compounded when I would go on Facebook and see a friend post that they had just landed a great new job. It’s wrong to be resentful of others experiencing happiness, but it’s extremely difficult not to feel even worse when you read those posts.
All around me that holiday season, everyone was happy, reveling in the special holiday events going on, spreading good cheer. Every second of it made my skin crawl. I wanted to hide in a dark room and never come out.
The tide turned in 2013. I found my current job as an editor at The Orlando Sentinel that summer, and I turned my negative feelings into something positive my channeling all that pain into my novel “Bloody Rabbit.” By December of 2013, I was in the holiday spirit once again. This month, I feel even more excited to jump into the holidays.
But as I started writing those Christmas cards, I had to stop for a moment and wonder if there were others out there who were having a December like the one I experienced in 2012. It doesn’t have to be about a job loss or unemployment; it could be about a death in the family, a serious health care crisis, a growing problem with substance abuse, or something else entirely. What I remembered from December 2012 is that I absolutely, positively did not want to talk about it to anyone, I didn’t want to ruin their holiday cheer with my sob stories. I wondered how many of my friends might be undergoing something similar, and likewise feel like it’s the wrong time to talk about their troubles.
I know I have friends who have faced major challenges this year — one with a serious cancer diagnosis, another going through a messy divorce, another who ended a longtime relationship after it got violent, and she needed to take out a restraining order. They’re out there.
It’s hard to know what to say or do when you meet up with one of these friends, and they don’t breathe a word about the problems they’re going through or their misery index. They just smile and wish you a happy Christmas. You do the same.
And you don’t know if you just missed an opportunity to reach out to them and say, “If you ever want to talk, I’m there for you.”
Writing Christmas cards is tough, in a sense, especially when you’re going through very good times. In December 2012 I didn’t send out any Christmas cards. I couldn’t do it. It was too painful.
Hopefully by getting my card, any of my friends who are not celebrating a great year that’s come and gone will at least know that I do care, and that’s why I sent it. I just hope I didn’t accidentally make things worse for them, even in a small way.
Contact Mike Freeman at Freeline Media or at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..