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Expert Advice

Be thoughtful about holiday greetings

When a friend or loved one is going through a hard time, the usual season’s greetings—“Merry Christmas!” “Happy Hanukkah!”—may not feel right. Still, you can find a kind and meaningful way to acknowledge the holidays. Try some of these phrases instead.

When you want to acknowledge the holidays

Your friend may not feel like participating in holiday events—or maybe they’re doing their best to maintain high spirits or to create new traditions to replace the old. However they feel about the holidays, it can comfort them to know that you’re thinking about them and that you’re there if they need you.

Instead of:

“Happy holidays”

Try:

  • “I’m thinking of you, especially during the holidays.”
  • “I imagine this Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/New Year is tough for you. How are you doing today?”
  • “This might not be your best holiday ever, but I’m thinking of you and wishing you the best New Year possible.”

When you want to cheer them up

When someone goes through a life-changing event, it makes sense that the holidays will change for them, too. Let your friend know you’re there for them, however they feel or whatever they want to do. It’s okay if they don’t feel like celebrating—putting on a happy face might not be realistic or helpful. Plus, research shows that expressing feelings honestly can help people heal.1

Instead of:

  • “Where’s your holiday spirit?”
  • “Cheer up! It’s the holidays!”

Try:

  • “It’s okay for you to feel however you feel this holiday season. I’m here for you.”
  • “I want to spend time with you this holiday season, no matter how you’re feeling.”

When you want to spread a little joy

You may worry that saying or doing anything happy when your friend is struggling is inconsiderate or hurtful. But it is possible for people to savor small, joyful moments even when they’re dealing with something painful. Sharing these moments can make your loved one feel supported and included.

Instead of:

  • “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
  • “I love the holidays so much!”

Try:

  • “I’m grateful to share this moment with you.”
  • “This [tree/snowfall/religious ceremony] is so beautiful. Your mom would have loved it.”
  • “This reminds me of the first holiday we spent together.”
  • “It’s so special to watch all the kids play together this way.”

When you want to focus on gratitude

If your friend is hurting, they may not feel particularly thankful about anything. Resist the temptation to tell them what they should be grateful for. Instead, consider taking this opportunity to tell your friend how grateful you are for them—what they bring to your life, why you value their company. It may inspire them to find their own gratitude, which can help them build resilience and find meaning.

Instead of:

  • “You still have so much to be thankful for.”
  • “At least you still have …”

Try:

  • “I’m so grateful for your friendship.”
  • “I’m so grateful that we’re all able to be together.”
  • “It means so much to me to spend today with you.”

Hopefully, these recommendations will help you support your loved ones this holiday season. Don’t worry about getting this exactly right. At some point, you might say something that you wish you hadn’t. That’s okay—just say you’re sorry and keep going. The most important thing is that you care and you’re trying.

Endnotes

  1. Finkenauer, C., & Bernard, R. (1998). Socially Shared Emotional Experiences Vs. Emotional Experiences Kept Secret: Differential Characteristics and Consequences. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 17(3), 295-318.
    Lepore, S. J., Ragan, J. D., & Jones, S. (2000). Talking facilitates cognitive–emotional processes of adaptation to an acute stressor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(3), 499.