Congratulations! You just finished your last midterm exam. Now the end of the semester is rushing towards you. There are research papers and problem set deadlines approaching. You have five internships to apply to by mid-December. And when all of that’s over, you can return home to a different breed of stress: lectures from your parents on what you should or shouldn’t be doing with your life and your grandma incessantly probing you on why you haven’t brought a “nice gentleman friend” home to meet her. The days are getting shorter and colder, darkness drags on, and seasonal depression is a real thing. Welcome to what many call the “hell weeks,” an academically crucial and emotionally draining period between Thanksgiving and winter break.
For many college students, the holiday season is far from cheerful. Often, that lack of positivity is compounded by marketing campaigns assuming you must be over-the-top jubilant. Or it’s made worse by well-intended people reinforcing that assumption.
“What are you all doing for the school break?” The question seemed innocent enough when a girl asked during a group in-class lab assignment. Most of my groupmates answered that they were going home. One student, Alex*, laughed that they would just be spending the break in their dorm room with some TV dinners. An awkward silence settled among us as if Alex had announced their deep-set hatred for Santa Claus and all things classically festive.
“You mean you’re not going home?” a classmate uselessly confirmed. Alex explained that they live on the opposite side of the country from our school and no matter how early their parents search, they can never find tickets cheap enough to make a Thanksgiving trip back home feasible. Someone else then recommended they “at least order takeout instead of TV dinners.”
My classmates meant no harm, and I doubt Alex dwelled on the awkward conversation long after. However, the nature of the questions implies that Alex should experience their time off by a uniform celebration standard of being around family, friends and fancy food. Alex is certainly not alone in having a Thanksgiving different from the cheery TV commercial stereotype. Even for students who do get to go home, that holiday image may differ drastically from the cookie-cutter picture we are fed and often feed each other.
So, what can you do if your holiday situation isn’t ideal?
- Find an escape plan.
If your home isn’t an ideal place (and you can find another option), don’t go home. I wouldn’t encourage students to break the bank on booking a hotel for a month. There is a more affordable option. I tried housesitting for one winter break, and it went pretty well. I got free housing for three weeks (plus a lovely gift of chocolates and wine) in exchange for looking after the most adorable chubby cat. I was even allowed to have guests over, and some friends from overseas came to tour my city for New Years.
- Change your sadness into someone’s gladness.
If ever you are stuck in an area alone with little to do for the break, consider donating your time to something bigger than your Netflix account. Homeless shelters and soup kitchens are always looking for volunteers around both Thanksgiving and Winter holidays when their regular staff members need the time off to be with their families. Plan ahead and research charity options in your area and the smile you can put on at least one person’s face will be well worth dragging yourself out of your dorm room.
- Learn things for fun.
If you do not want to be home for break, but you can’t crash with friends or stay in the company of a stranger’s pet, rest assured there are ways to make those weeks go by less painfully. If you are reading this, I assume you have access to a computer or at least a phone, and the internet is your best friend. Try tuning out whatever is going on at home by teaching yourself something new. You could learn a new language with an app such as Duolingo, take a formal course on EdX or watch endless YouTube videos that just teach you things. Crash Course by John Green (and team) has some pretty solid and playfully animated options. TedEd has taught me things I would never learn in school in five minutes. And The School of Life was made for figuring out how to be your best self.
- Invest in yourself.
Whether you are stuck at home or stuck away from home, there are always opportunities to work on becoming the person you have always wanted to be. It doesn’t have to be a huge, stressful goal like “I want to make it on Forbes 30 Under 30, and I only have a decade left.” I’ve burnt some boring vacation time working on smaller goals such as teaching myself to do a split, learning how to prep a vegan meal on a budget, or experimenting with makeup products. Mini-goals are different for everyone. You could learn the names and locations of every country in the world, start a new exercise routine, revamp your clothing style. The possibilities are endless.
Whatever the reason you hate the holidays, remember, it’s just a season. School will eventually start up again, and you won’t have to think about all of this for another 365 days. If you’re already strapped into a circumstance you would rather not deal with for this year, use that time to forge a better plan for the next time. And for anyone who loves the holidays and has no issues surrounding this season: please offer a sympathetic ear or an open couch to those you know who are struggling. Congratulations, you just finished your last midterm. Welcome to the most wonderful time of the year.