'Happier' Holidays: Making Space for Non-Dominant Experiences During Holidays

November 15, 2021

By: Dr. Sarah Saska

For many, the holiday season is a time of celebration, community, and happiness. In North America, dominant culture privileges a ‘positive’ Christmas or 'happy' holiday experience, and we rarely provide space to consider some of the less comfortable counter-narratives.

I don't experience holidays as a ‘happy’ time. I'm not Christian, and I don't celebrate Christmas. I lost my dad to cancer around the holidays when I was quite young, and years later, my step-dad as well. I’m also a survivor of sexual violence. Despite having family and friends (many of whom I consider family), I tend to dread the holiday season, and I’m certainly not alone in this feeling. 

Sometimes the blanket of ‘happy’ associated with the holidays can mask or hide the people and experiences for whom this time of year brings sadness, pain, loneliness, and otherness. Opening space to acknowledge counter-narratives relating to Christmas and holiday celebrations is not meant to detract from the experiences of those for whom this is an important and happy time of year, but rather to give us pause to make more people feel acknowledged. Below are a few experiences to consider.

Religion, Spirituality, & Observances

For faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, Christmas is not a religious holiday. Therefore, the prioritization of Christianity in North American culture (and beyond) can be lonely and othering. 

Family, Home, & Belonging

Holidays can be challenging for those who are far from ‘home’ and lack the financial means to return, or those who are unable to return ‘home’ due to issues of displacement, citizenship, or other complications. For others, time with family can mean navigating expectations, judgements, microaggressions, heteronormativity, palatability, and violence. In addition, experiences such as misgendering, the use of incorrect pronouns or dead names, and familial rejection can create isolation and trauma. 

Loss, Trauma, & Triggers

The loss of loved ones can be painful, and during the holiday season, when family, belonging, and companionship are often centred, these losses can feel amplified. Expectations of happiness, combined with grief, can be onerous and exhausting. 

Trauma may also be a heightened experience for people this time of year. For those who have experienced violence associated with family members or close friends, visiting places associated with pain and harm can cause triggers and reminders which impact the ability to feel safe and capable of celebration.

Mental, Physical, & Emotional Health 

The holiday season can increase stress, whether due to expectations around finances, organizing and planning, caregiving, eating and drinking, or reconnecting with people from the past, as examples. Continuous social demand at workplace events or time spent with family or friends can be especially triggering for those living with addiction. It can be draining on people’s mental health and those with introverted tendencies. In addition, for those with physical health challenges and experiences, navigating this time of year can be met with more barriers to accessibility and exhaustion.  

The holiday season and the ‘resolutions’ that follow can also be stressful, especially for people living with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, or those whose bodies generally deviate from the ‘norm.’ 

Consumerism, Capitalism, & Climate Change

Indulging in the consumerism typical of this season is an economic privilege many cannot access. Having limited finances to spend during this short period may cause feelings of guilt and shame. Celebrations of consumerist holidays can also exacerbate feelings and outcomes relating to capitalism and reinforce concerns relating to climate change. 

Working Towards ‘Happier’ Holidays 

Opening space to acknowledge counter-narratives relating to Christmas and holiday celebrations is not meant to detract from the experiences of those for whom this is an important and happy time of year. Instead, it gives us pause to think of ways to make more people feel acknowledged and create more space for discussions about non-dominant holiday experiences. 

Allowing space in our conversations for non-dominant holiday experiences is an essential part of supporting the inclusivity of our friends and colleagues. Thinking critically about how we reference, discuss, and practice the holiday season is a necessary first step. So, here are some reminders:

  • Don’t presume that everyone is Christian or that everyone celebrates Christmas or the holiday season.
  • Don’t presume that everyone has a ‘home’ to return to during the holidays.
  • Don’t presume that everyone has a nuclear family.  ‘Family’ comes in many forms, and for many, chosen families are critical.
  • Don’t force people to attend holiday-related parties.

The dissonance of being surrounded by colleagues and leaders, or in workplaces that assume positivity and celebration as the 'norm' can be lonely for many. So, as colleagues, entrepreneurs, and leaders, here are some things to consider trying out:

  • Acknowledge that non-dominant experiences relating to the holiday season exist and validate them in communications to your team, clients, partners, and social audiences.
  • Allow people to opt-in to workplace events (whether virtual or in-person) and, when possible, expand the event’s theme and ensure plenty of non-alcoholic options and food is readily available.
  • When people share non-dominant experiences relating to the holidays, listen to them. 
  • If your industry or growth stage allows, create a format for team members to have the option to take time off for the celebrations that are relevant to them and opt to work during dominant holidays. 
  • Avoid engaging in “traditional” or dominant Christmas and holiday visual representations. This goes for both internal and external marketing. 

For those who experience the holidays in a non-dominant way, I acknowledge you. I hope you can find pockets of safety and comfort in your way this time of year.  

For more information on developing an inclusive approach to the holidays, review "A Guide to Celebrating and Observing Equitably in the Workplace"