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Volunteers serve lunch on Christmas Day at Volunteer of America’s Sunset Park, an apartment complex for low-income seniors and disabled individuals.

Keeping the Holidays Real

Beating the Winter Blues with the Gift that Keeps on Giving (Back)

For many Americans, December 1st is a long-awaited and celebrated occasion — almost a holiday itself. It marks the official launch of the most festive, extraordinary month of the year, culminated in Hanukkah, Christmas, and finally the New Year.

With extravagant parties, food served from ten-foot long tables, and copious amounts of illuminated home décor, December is, without a doubt, the most expensive month of the year.

From the emblazoned popcorn tin sitting ominously in the office break room to the electronic road signs scattered above I-70 reminding everyone to drive safe (and be merry, of course!), it is nearly impossible to ignore that this is, supposedly, the most joyous time of year, too. Whether it appears as, “peace, love, and joy,” “making spirits bright,” or “a holly jolly Christmas,” the key takeaway from the season is supreme and overflowing happiness.

VOA Meal
A holiday meal is served by volunteers at the Volunteers of America Mission in RiNo.

So why aren’t you bursting with happiness?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Elvis Presley is not the only one singing the blues on Christmas. In fact, 64% of people say that they experience feelings of anxiety and/or depression during the “most wonderful time of the year.” Twenty-four percent of people say that the holidays affect them “a lot.”

Lezlie Burwell, PhD, LPC, NCC, a Senior Clinical Program Manager at Volunteers of America Colorado, affirms that there are numerous reasons why we are more susceptible to contracting the “blues” during the holiday season.

For some, anxiety and depression are shaped around meeting unrealistic holiday expectations of absolute perfection. Christmas is just one more day in a year, in a lifetime, and “real life” happens on these days of celebration, just like any other day. People are born, they die, get in car accidents, go hungry, get married, scream in anger, and cry in pain. But the elevated expectations and meaning that we attach to this season, fueled by flawed depictions of picture-perfect happiness in holiday advertising, can bring us unnecessary stress, anxiety, and grief.

“I believe we tend to live our lives in these moments of “only if” or “when” and not in the here and now. Christmas expectations are exactly that,” Burwell says. “If I could only afford to buy what they really wanted—they would be happier, and I would feel better.”

It is living in the realm of expectations, not just around the holidays but year-round, that brings us discouragement and frustration.

The holidays can also remind us of heartbreak and loss. The first holiday without a partner that left, a family member who passed away, or even the loss of a job, can be difficult. Reminiscing on raw memories from holidays past can be difficult to cope with and considering new traditions in the face of an altered reality is emotionally daunting.

All these stress factors change our behavior potentially affecting the way we treat those around us. We are more likely to lash out at people close to us or even strangers during the “happiest season of all.”

So how do you keep the blues at bay?

Setting reasonable expectations, focusing on self-care, making time for exercise, and sticking to a normal routine as much as possible are just a few things that can help.

But what else can we do during this time of year?
Many mental health experts suggest giving back.

VOA Santa Shop
Volunteers of America Colorado’s “Santa Shop” provides donated presents to children of all ages in Denver.

“Most of us tend to feel a sense of purpose and connectedness with our community when we give to others,” Dr. Burwell affirms. “I believe that is it the key to mental health—to open our lives outside of our own needs and wants and to help someone. We are wired for human connection and emotional intimacy and giving and supporting each other is an important part of our genetic make-up. Some of us can give time and energy and can work one-on-one with those in need; some would rather give money. Both are noble and necessary.”

Volunteers of America Colorado, a local non-profit organization, puts on several different volunteer-driven events each holiday season including packing and distributing Christmas meal baskets to low-income families, providing wrapped presents to children and homebound seniors, and hosting community meals at their affordable housing properties throughout December and on Christmas. The success of these events relies on the support of thousands of dedicated volunteers and donors. For many families and individuals, giving back to their community has become one holiday tradition that they truly look forward to each year.

VOA Turkey
Volunteers help distribute all the fixings for a holiday feast in to low-income families in Denver.

One such individual, Betty, has been involved with Volunteers of America Colorado for nearly four decades, donating her time, energy, and resources throughout the year, and especially during the holiday season. She has been incredibly blessed throughout her life and is compelled to give back often.

Unfortunately, Betty has also been a victim of the holiday blues. Both her husband and son were taken by cancer at young ages. “No one is immune,” she claims, speaking of the sadness that people feel around the holidays.

Still, her and her daughter, Terry, continue to look for ways to give back to their community through various Volunteers of America Colorado programs. They deliver Meals on Wheels to the homebound elderly on both Thanksgiving and Christmas; gift brand new winter coats and hats to veterans at the Bill Daniels Veteran Services Center; and help provide a day of beauty and pampering to women escaping homelessness and domestic abuse the first Sunday of every December at the Irving Street Women’s Residence.

VOA Family
A family volunteers at the Volunteers of America Mission turned “Santa Shop.”

“Providing love and support to someone who is experiencing pain and loss right now, really helps you forget about your own loss,” Betty says. “I try to do something every day. The little things, surprising people you love – those moments give you the best feeling in the world. And it really gets you in the holiday spirit.”

Conquering the holiday blues is no easy feat, and there are certainly many factors that affect mental and emotional health. However, giving your time and energy to others – those who are most in need – and focusing on the joys of human connectedness might just be one of the best gifts you give yourself this holiday season.

VOA Jayden Food
One volunteer demonstrates that it’s never too early to start giving back.

To find out how you can get involved with Volunteers of America Colorado this holiday season, visit