For many children, nothing compares to the mounting excitement that begins after Halloween and crescendos as we reach the end of the year, when Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and many other holidays are celebrated with gifts and get togethers. Once we reach adulthood, however, this time of the year may not bring such unmitigated joy. Memories of those who have passed away may come rushing back to us, and these feelings of loss and grief can be exacerbated due to the expectations and pressures of the season. Add in that it is literally the darkest time of the year (December 21 is the shortest day of the year, with just 7 hours, 49 minutes, and 42 seconds of daylight) and you may feel overwhelmed and lost. Grief mixed with the stresses of the holiday season results in 38% of adults in the United States feeling sadness, depression, and isolation. For many, it is hardly the “most wonderful time of the year.”

We must allow ourselves to miss and mourn those who have died in any way that feels right to us. However, it may also be possible to transform the way we feel at this time of year and change our experience of the holiday season. If we turn toward this time of year as a time of remembrance, we may be able to channel our grief into action and reduce our feelings of powerlessness while celebrating our loved ones who can’t be with us. Around the world, different cultures and religions have developed specific days and traditions that do just this. They include:

In Mexico, Dia de Los Muertos (November 1 & 2) is an occasion to build altars (ofrendas), tend to graves, and have large parties to commemorate the dead.

In Japan during Obon (mid to late summer, typically August 13-16 or so), some light candles or small fires at their front door to welcome their ancestors back home or launch lanterns on rivers to guide them.

In Scandinavian countries, grave blankets are placed in early December. These blankets are traditionally made of evergreen boughs and laid on the grave to keep the dead warm during winter.

In China, during the ‘ghost month’ (the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, which is 2023 will be August 30), food and joss paper (paper money believed to have value in the afterlife) are offered to the dead who can revisit the living at this time.

In Ireland, on All Soul’s Night (November 2), families light a candle for their loved ones who have died. In the past, it was believed the dead would come back to bestow gifts on the living – the ability to reconnect to tradition and their past heritage.

Hindus celebrate Pitru Paksha (in 2023, it will begin on September 29), a two-week period during which food and prayers are offered to those who have died. It is also believed that by engaging in rituals and offerings, Hindus can wash off any sins inherited from their ancestors.

All these rituals and holidays have one thing in common – the goal of building a bridge between the living and the dead. Lighting candles, singing certain songs, and even telling stories may help us feel closer to those who have died. If you wish to harness the healing power of these holidays for yourself and your family, try creating a set of rituals that have meaning for you. Such practices can become part of your family's tradition, making this time of year your own unique holiday of remembrance. You could:

  • Make your mother’s famous apple pie, which she used to bake each Christmas.
  • Play a specific record of carols as you decorate your tree each year.
  • Watch a movie or set of movies you enjoyed with your family as a child.
  • Volunteer with an organization that served your loved one during their illness.
  • Decorate a loved one's grave with holiday decorations.
  • Start your own tradition to be passed down through future generations.

The holidays are not a time to try to "forget" our grief. On the contrary, the pain of loss that arises is a sign to us, a sign of the depth of our connection to those we have lost. Dr. Colin Murray Parks, a British psychologist, first said, "Grief is the price we pay for love." Because they can trigger grief, the holidays can also offer us opportunities to express that love. Celebrating that love can be a balm for our psyches during this time, and while we may not be able to recapture the unbridled joy and awe of our childhoods, we might be able to reframe our experiences during the holiday season and approach the end of the year with a sense of intention and reflection.