A woman and a dog look out the window of a small cottage. A fire is burning in the background.

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

Dr. Sarah Saska

For many, the holiday season is a time of celebration, community, and happiness. In North America, the dominant culture privileges a positive, happy holiday experience and 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 pretty young, and years later, my stepdad as well. I’m also a survivor of sexual violence. Despite having family and friends (many of whom I consider family), I often dread the holiday season and am not the only person who feels this way.

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. Instead, it gives us pause to make more people feel acknowledged. Below are a few experiences to consider.

Religion, Spirituality, & Observances

The prioritization of Christianity in North American culture (and elsewhere) can be lonely and othering. And while some of the activities surrounding Christmas, such as decorating trees, going to parades, and exchanging gifts, are often considered secular or commercial, they remain grounded in specific religious and cultural assumptions. The mainstreaming of these activities can leave little room for other experiences. Check out Feminuity’s Holidays, Observances, & Celebrations Calendar to learn more about the diversity of religious and spiritual observances recognized globally. 

Family, Home, & Belonging

Holidays can be challenging for those who are far from home or cannot be with their family. For example, they may not have the financial means to travel. They may have citizenship issues. Or their home country may be experiencing social, cultural, economic, and political upheaval.

Holidays can also be challenging for those who visit with their family. It can mean navigating expectations, judgements, microaggressions, heteronormativity, palatability, and violence. And experiences like misgendering, the use of incorrect pronouns or dead names, and familial rejection can create isolation and trauma. 

Loss, Trauma, & Triggers

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

Trauma may be a heightened experience for some. For those who have experienced violence from family members or close friends, visiting places associated with pain and harm can be triggering and impact their ability to feel safe, let alone celebrate.

Mental, Physical, & Emotional Health 

The holiday season can increase stress because of financial expectations, 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 for 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 following resolutions can also be stressful, especially for people 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 the stresses of capitalism and reinforce climate change concerns.

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 make more people feel acknowledged. So, as colleagues, leaders, and friends, here are some things to consider:

  • Try not to make assumptions. Not everyone is Christian, celebrates Christmas or the holiday season, and has a ‘home’ or nuclear family to return to during the holidays. When people share their non-normative experiences relating to the holidays, listen to them. 
  • Acknowledge that non-normative experiences relating to the holiday season exist and validate them in communications to your team, clients, partners, and social audiences. 
  • Be intentional with using “traditional” or normative Christmas and holiday visual representations in your internal and external marketing. 
  • If your industry or growth stage allows, create a format for team members to have the option to take time off for the observances, holidays, and celebrations that are relevant to them and opt to work during dominant dates. 
  • If hosting a holiday-related party, make it optional, consider expanding the event’s theme, and offer food and drink options that respect people’s needs and cultures and go beyond Christian holiday traditions. 

Feminuity’s resource, An Inclusive Approach to Holidays, Observances, and Celebrations, has even more suggestions to help your team engage intentionally throughout the calendar year.

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