It wasn't simply that Scrooge was stingy with his money. The tight-fisted old curmudgeon of Dickens' famous story, "A Christmas Carol," was suffering from the holiday depression syndrome that strikes many people today.
Like Scrooge, modern Americans sometimes find that Christmas makes them feel blue. Like him, they dread the forced merriment of the "season to be jolly." Like him, they fear the drain on their wallets, already hit hard by inflation. And like him, they are haunted by memories of past Christmases, burdened by the pressures of Christmas present and tormented by the specter of Christmases yet to come.
To help people during what may be a difficult time of year for them, Family Service of Prince George's County Inc. recently held a one-evening workshop called "Beating the Holiday Blues." The session, attended by nine people who asked not to be identified, was led by clinical social worker Joy T. Friedman.
One by one, their stories unfolded.
The Bachelor: Stiff and tense, almost grim at times, he said he came to the meeting to find more of the true spirit of Christmas. He said he often regrets that he doesn't have a family at holiday time. Commercialism gets him down and he wishes Christmas carols could be banned until two weeks before Dec. 25.
The Saleswoman: Some things about Christmas are hard to take, she said. Every Christmas her boss goes to a great deal of trouble picking out gifts for the employes. But, she said, the gifts reflect the recipients' sales levels for the year. The top salesperson can expect a gift as grand as a television, while the least successful can expect a lowly bottle of hand lotion. Her boss's tradition depressed her and she felt there was little she could do about it.
Conflict at holiday time, Friedman said, generally is caused by unrealistic expectations -- the difference between internal fantasies and external realities.
"We may think that the holidays can make everything all right," Friedman said, "or we can expect them to be like (they were) when we were a child. It's the whole concept the child has of Santa Claus and the glorious, enchanted time, a time of being given to. Or if it wasn't that way, it's (a fantasy of) what you hoped it would be like when you grew up."
When the holiday falls short of the fantasy, she said, people get depressed.
The Newlyweds: He was tall with a beard and she was small, but otherwise they looked alike. Both had long, limp brown hair. Both slouched and wore old clothes, a hangdog look and shiny new wedding rings on their fingers. Christmas made him depressed, she said. That's why they had come. They were renting a room in someone else's house. They had no special place to go for the holidays, nothing special to do, with no friends or family who wanted them. Though her mother lived nearby, her father had objected to their marriage. They had been married a week.
It's hard to say whether holiday depression has its roots in the new mobility and the breakdown of the traditional family, Friedman said, or whether there is a new openness and willingness to talk about these feelings and to reach out for help.
The Grandmother: She said she always had been unhappy at Christmas time. The season made her blue no matter how hard she tried to enjoy it during the years of raising her children while coping with an alcoholic husband. Now a widow, she had overheard a granddaughter saying, "Oh-oh. Christmas is coming and she will be unhappy again." So she decided to do something about it and come to the workshop.
Unrealistic expectations of the Christmas holiday aren't the only reasons for feeling depressed, Friedman said. Sometimes, she said, people expect too much from themselves or from others. Both can be enormous burdens, she said.
The Wife and Mother: For years she has carefully nurtured her two daughters in Christmas traditions like baking cookies together. But increasingly she dreads all the work she has made for herself and resents her daughters' insistence on following the tradition. She couldn't face baking 12 different kinds of cookies again, especially when the girls are likely to fight with each other while they are doing it.
The Widower: His wife used to organize a Christmas celebration for him and their four children, but when she died 10 years ago, the burden fell to him. It was something he was not good at and did not relish, he said. But if he didn't make Christmas special, he felt guilty, like a bad father. Although his children are now in their 20s, he still feels the burden and is depressed around Christmas.
There are also real reasons, not just fantasies or unreasonable expectations, for feeling down, Friedman said.
"There is the reality of people being alone in this revolving-door community, the reality of the economy being increasingly tight and (the reality of) all those single-parent homes."
The Unemployed Single Father: Without a job and without money, Christmas looks bleak, he said. There's so much to do that it's overwhelming. He had risen at 5:30 that morning and made a list of 31 things to do that day, many to make Christmas special for his three grown children. After he had accomplished only a few of the tasks, he got more depressed. He had gotten only as far as the M's on his Christmas card list.
The Single Woman: She dabbed her blue-shadowed eyes with a crushed tissue and said little about herself.
Friedman suggests dealing with holiday blues in two steps: Identify the source of the feelings, then get busy and do something to chase away the depression.
As each of the people at the meeting discussed problems, other group members offered suggestions on ways to cope.
* "Why don't you bake five kinds of cookies instead of a dozen?" the single woman asked the wife and mother.
* "I've decided to give my grandchildren money for Christmas," said the grandmother. "I just won't go into Toys-R-Us at Christmas time. And now that they are older, (money) is what they prefer. It's a way to cut out one unpleasantness of the holidays."
* "Why don't you consider volunteering?" Friedman asked the single members of the group. "The library has a 14-page listing of events to attend around the holidays and the county volunteer office will match up volunteers with organizations who can use them. It's true that in giving of yourself you truly give."
* "Surely you know someone with whom you can make special plans," group members said to the newlyweds. "What about the people you live with, don't you like them?"
"Well, yes," she answered, "we like them pretty well. Maybe we will all do something together."
"Couldn't you get some of your grown children to help plan something for the holiday celebration so the burden wouldn't be all yours?" the unemployed single father asked the widower.
"I think the reason I get depressed around Christmas time," said the grandmother, "is that I lost my mother around Christmas time long ago and later my sister."
* "You need to tell your boss how uncomfortable the gift giving makes you feel," someone told the saleswoman. "Since you are one of the successful ones, perhaps your boss will listen."
"I have heard it said that while actions follow feelings, feelings may also follow actions. In other words you can create your own feelings by taking some action," said the bachelor as the hour-and-a-half session closed. "So I am going to start tonight. I want to wish everyone here a very merry Christmas."
" . . . And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, "God bless us, every one!" -- Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol."