12/24/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2014

Christmas, Without the Cheer

Earlier today, tempers flared at our homeless drop-in center, and not for the first time this week. It was just after 9:30 a.m. when suddenly-raised voices broke the usual morning hum, as one client ("Jasper") started to shout. "Stop trying to grab my stuff," he yelled at "Dale," another client. Dale burst out laughing. "I don't want your crappy old stuff, Jasper!" I glanced into the room, saw in Jasper's face his rising rage.

As the holiday season reaches a frenzied peak, tension levels among Bethesda Cares' clients are noticeably spiking. I don't know why. Well, no. Actually, I do. I don't celebrate Christmas, but it's impossible not to feel the effects of our culture's yuletide tsunami. Even if you're homeless. Or maybe, especially.

Is this year worse? I've seen an unusual amount of news coverage about Christmas causing a lot of people stress. Speculation is that a late Thanksgiving shortened the number of shopping days until Christmas, and that lost few days is freaking people out. I've seen articles decrying "Merry Stressmas," heard of churches delivering sermons on "holiday blues."

Better, worse, it doesn't much matter. Whatever your religious beliefs, the very high decibel level of the "holiday season" leaves us all susceptible to elevated emotions and heightened expectations at this time of year. But most of us cope. We take deep breaths, maybe try to hit the treadmill after work. Many of our homeless clients, however, lack the vocabulary, the self-awareness or the tools to address these emotions constructively.

Their lives are not easy on a good day. So exactly why are tensions so high, why is their pain more palpable than usual? What's going on in their heads? I guess I'll speculate.

It could be envy: A steady flow of generous donors pour through our doors this month, arms laden with trays of cookies, bags of warm clothing, baskets of fruit. We put some of the food out immediately, but there is often too much to put out at once so we store the rest in a conference room. We keep the clothes back there, too, to be shifted for organized distribution through our off-site clothing closet.

But the clients probably don't know about our inner workings, likely don't care about how we manage the bounty that comes through our door at this time of year. They probably don't focus on the fact that the donations are ultimately for them. All they know is that people with arms full of gifts, full of food, full of things that they want, walk past them all day.

It could be loss: Every one of our clients has a story, has a family, a history and traditions. Their current status, living unsheltered, means that they probably currently cannot access those rituals. Fragrant trays of Christmas cookies can be evocative. Families walk past our center, arm in arm, wearing Santa hats and carrying brightly wrapped packages, look as carefree as Norman Rockwell paintings. People wish each other happy holidays, radios play familiar old tunes. Media everywhere trumpet shopping sales, in which our clients will not participate.

It could be exclusion: We do our best to provide holiday events for our clients, but they will not be waking up to a warm houses, gifts under trees. They'll wake up in our parking lots, if they were even able to fall asleep. Their Christmases are not ones depicted on TV.

Living on the streets is a miserable, painful existence, fraught with physical and emotional difficulties. Maybe the holidays are the straw that breaks the camel's back. Or maybe they are just the burden of yet another straw.