“SANTA!!! I know him!! I know him!!”
I was 9 years old, sitting in a packed mall movie theater during a Sunday matinee, when I saw Elf for the first time. Sandwiched between my parents, I watched with wonder as professional man-child Will Ferrell, dressed as an elf, skipped down the streets of Manhattan and got into holiday hijinks. Even in 2003, I think audiences knew that Elf would find its place as a staple of the holiday season.
Over the next fifteen years, Elf became a Christmas classic, frequently playing on multiple networks during the holiday season. You’ll find memorable quotes from the movie emblazoned on T-shirts and all types of merch, even on Alex and Ani bracelets. And is it really Christmas if you don’t have full conversations with your friends and family using Elf quotes? (I’ve been known to answer the phone this time of year with the greeting, “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?”)
However, at 9 years old, sitting in that theater with a mouth full of popcorn, I saw the pure joy on Buddy’s face and thought, “How can anyone be that happy? Why can’t I be that happy?”
Like any other kid who celebrated Christmas, I always got excited when December finally rolled around. I’d beg my parents for a Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, and threaten the worst of temper tantrums if there was a delay. However, no amount of cookies or presents could stop the knot that grew tighter in my stomach as the days got closer to Christmas—I dreaded the long stretches of winter. By Christmas morning, my depression was so bad that I couldn’t even get out of bed without my parents coming to get me.
Later, I learned I was suffering from seasonal depression.
As the National Institute of Mental Health explains, seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) “is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons”—most commonly occurring in late fall and early winter, then going away when the weather gets warmer, though SAD can occur in the summer months as well. In a given year, about five percent of Americans experience SAD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SAD is diagnosed “four times more often in women than men,” and young adults have a higher risk of SAD than older adults.
I’ve lived most of my life in Upstate New York, where winter starts in early November and lasts well into April; our lives dictated by snow, ice, and sleet. When I was a kid, it would be pitch black outside by 4 p.m., and no matter how many layers I wore, I never felt warm enough. After a particularly bad ice storm left us without power for almost a week when I was 4 years old, I remember asking my mother if the sun would ever come out again.
But as I sat in that movie theater in 2003, I was awestruck by how Buddy handled every unpleasant situation with bright optimism. Whether getting mauled by a raccoon, being rejected by his long-lost father, and running around in tights in the freezing cold weather, Buddy never stopped seeing the good in the world. Elf made me laugh and smile, but most of all, it taught me how to find joy in small things like syrup and the world’s “best cup of coffee.” The weather can be cold and gloomy, but I didn’t have to be.
As I got older, I used Elf as both a method of self-care and as a survival guide. From early November to well into March, I’d watch Elf whenever my seasonal depression got to be too much—which was every night. It was a small activity that I could enjoy, even when having a cheerful thought seemed impossible. I mean, how can you not laugh at lines like “cotton-headed ninny muggins” and “Bye, Buddy, hope you find your dad!”?
While others quoted the movie because it was funny, I turned lines into mantras.
“I just like to smile. Smiling is my favorite,” and “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” were the perfect things to whisper to myself whenever the dark days of winter started closing in and all the magic seemed to disappear. It wouldn’t “fix” my depression, but it’s hard to stay in total despair when you’re singing carols under your breath.
When I entered adulthood and my seasonal depression turned into major depression, I had to tell my intrusive negative thoughts that they “sit on a throne of lies.”
I’d say, “Not now, arctic puffin” whenever they creeped into my mind. Repeating the “code of the elves” helped make each day a little more bearable. I did not choose to have depression, but I could do something about how to control it. Depression is dark and aggressive, so the best defense is a good offense. I battled my depression with overwhelming cheerfulness, and what character is more aggressively cheerful than Buddy the Elf?
Looking back, it’s easy to see how a lot of my personality—especially on those days when I’m trying to fight off depression—is ripped off from Buddy. My habit of skipping when I walk, giving compliments and smiles to anyone I meet, and drizzling syrup on almost everything (though, to be fair, I did that before watching Elf) are all things I picked up from the movie that truly help me feel better. When I felt hopeless, pointing out the joy in little things like a dog across the street or a painting in a museum made all the difference. For me, Elf is more than a holiday classic—it’s a lifeline.
The holiday season brings out a lot of emotions in most people—from anxiety to grief to joy to impossible-to-reach expectations. It claims to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but it can trigger serious cases of depression. So during this stressful and gloomy season, it’s important for me to re-learn lessons from Buddy: Find joy in the little things, treat every day like Christmas, and spread cheer—even if just to myself.