A housewife complains, "Every single year I have two tables of 12 for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. I'm tired of it . . ."
A family recalls a holiday trip to Connecticut, with visions of a snowy Currier & Ives setting. "We forgot that all those in the family who never got along, still don't get along . . ."
From more than one newcomer to Washington: "Do I have to go home for Christmas . . ."
A single parent ponders how to give a child a traditional Christmas when "Dad (or Mom) isn't home anymore . . ."
"I always expect it to be like it was when I was 10," and it never is, laments a woman who gets depressed every year at Christmas . . .
These are people for whom Christmas -- or the whole holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year's -- is hardly all silver bells and sugar cookies. They are among a growing number of people seeking help for their "Holiday Blues" at several workshops and discussion groups offered in the Washington area.
The carol may proclaim "Joy to the World," but mental-health workers agree that the holidays can be a time of particular stress. And the cold, often-gloomy weather forcing people inside doesn't help.
At a pre-Thanksgiving Open University session, a group of 13 was almost equally divided between newcomers to the city fearing they might have to spend the holidays alone; recently separated parents; and Jews who can feel left out in a society that makes such a big deal out of Christmas, as one said. "Somebody's always asking me if I've done my Christmas shopping."
If you've had troubles during the year, they can be even more acute at Christmas, says Colleen Greenan of the Alexandria Community Mental Health Center. "If you live alone, you may be more loney then. If the family has troubles, then you may have more difficulty getting along."
If finances are the big concern, then Christmas -- with its emphasis on gift-giving -- can mean even a harder time paying all the bills.
Even if things have been going great for 10 months of the year, but "at the holidays there isn't anyone in particular you're in love with," that can be "painful," says Joseph Riener of the Washington Community Therapy Guild.
Al Nestor of the Mount Vernon Center for Community Mental Health in Fairfax County says he sees people at Christmas experiencing "clinical deression" who are not depressed at other times of the year. They feel "helpless and hopeless," and sometimes show such symptoms as increased difficulty in functioning, anxiety, insomnia, a change in appetite and digestive problems.
People make "the incredible assumption that we're all supposed to be super happy and joyful" at Christmas, says Nestor, "and if they're not feeling that way, they think they're the only ones . . . If you think you're different, that will lead to more depression."
What the therapists hope to accomplish with their workshops is to get people to talk about their feelings and share them with others experiencing the same.
"The holidays stir up a fantasy of what it was like in the past," says Alice Moss of the Arlington Mental Health Center. "When this doesn't come through, it contributes to a let-down feeling. Wishes and reality collide." In the workshops, she says, people have a change to better understand "their own reality."
"Once people understand what's going on -- that what makes them feel depressed is a lack of connection with people -- they can go about creating a Christmas for themselves or a holiday that emphasizes warmth," says Riener.
The specialists offer a variety of suggestions for handling a wide range of holiday problems.
If you don't want to be alone for Christmas or New Year's Eve, take the initiative to make sure you are not, says Elsie Bliss (that is her name), who led the Open University session.
"Don't wait until the weekend comes and then feel sorry for yourself." Bliss often lectures on being single and enjoying it, and that means during the holidays, too.
Some of her common-sense advice: Invite an old friend from out of town and go ice-skating on the Mall Christmas Day. Give of yourself and spend the day with a shut-in. Do your taxes, take a walk, clean the house. (She's spent holidays that way herself.) Don't wait for an invitation; throw the party yourself, if only for a couple of people from the office. If they bring friends, the party grows.
"When you get involved in creative things, you lose you own pain," she says.
Many people find themselves keeping up old family traditions, even when they don't really enjoy them, says Alexandria's Greenan, and that can lead to stress. Greenan's discussion groups focus on Mom -- in most families the holiday-maker who does the shopping, wraps the gifts, sends the cards and cooks those big dinners.
Often, says Greenan, Mom gets saddled with the work when she doesn't speak up and tell her family she hates it.
"Just because your grandmother made 14 cakes and 500 cookies, do you have to, too? Maybe nobody wants them."
The woman who had two tables of her husband's relatives for each holiday dinner took that advice. She went home after a workshop and told her family she was canceling Thanksgiving. Her family was stunned, but she stuck to it. That Christmas, the guest list was trimmed to one table.
While Christmas for some is lonely, for others it is too hectic. But, says Greenan, "You don't have to go to 10 cocktail parties unless you want it."
So far as the guilt that therapists see among young Washington newcomers who don't want to go home for Christmas, Arlington's Moss says if you really don't want to go, don't. Take in a movie with a friend.
To make Christmas special, she suggests giving youself a gift, no matter how small, "instead of expecting someone else to come up with the perfect gift." One woman gave herself a new dishcloth because that's what she needed.
For the recently divorced parent, Susan Grossman of the Woodburn Center for Community Mental Health in Annandale suggests holding your own celebration in advance if your child is going to be with the other parent on the holiday. And then, she says, plan something for yourself on Christmas Day. The Woodburn Center is offering a discussion group aimed at the single parent at Christmas.
To avoid stress that could lead to depression, Nestor, of the Mount Vernon center, urges family members to talk over their holiday plans in advance. Responsibility for cleaning and shopping could be shared. If you plan to make out-of-town visits, set some limits. "Some people try to cover the whole East Coast in a couple of days."
Determine how much you want to spend this year, "and then try to stay in control." Set up a Christmas fund for next year.
Nester notes that there is yet another kind of seasonal depression. This one comes after the holidays. The sufferer, he says, is usually someone who has mastered the responsibities of Christmas, but feels a post-New Year's letdown when there are no more tasks to tackle.
But there is hope. Depression, he says, "is the most curable of the emotional problems we deal with."
And if it does turn out that you are alone on Christmas or New Year's -- and what's so terrible about that anyway, asks Bliss -- then indulge yourself.
So skiing. Or fix yourself a nice dinner and settle down in front of the TV set with a good bottle of champagne.
"It's better," she says, "than eating a peanut butter sandwich and having a lousy time." CAPTION: Illustration, "Of course you're depressed. 'Tis the season to be jolly." Copyright (c) 1966, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., by Stan Hunt