Christmas is coming?
Phew…. A deep sigh out. I made it. My car is in for a MOT and I am sitting down in the garage waiting area. I look around – there is a distinct lack of Christmas vibe. It actually feels soothing. Yes, Christmas is coming and it’s coming fast. Now, I really am not a Christmas Grinch but I have found myself stressing a wee bit over all the things that need doing. My email inbox is full of messages that increase the pressure: “Find the perfect gift!”, “Make Christmas special this year!”. I delete them immediately, but I can’t help but feeling irritated. Perfect? For whom? What does ‘special’ even mean?
I wonder what it’s like for the people around me and so I ask them what they find challenging about the season (which according to the shops starts in September) and what they do to keep themselves supported.
Here are some of their responses:
“Years ago Christmas was church, exchanging a few simple gifts and sitting down with family for a special meal. Now it’s so commercial and the build-up to Christmas starting weeks before the actual day, that as a parent it puts you under enormous pressure to make the day very entertaining and sometimes that isn’t very easy.”
“Christmas – I love it! For me it’s all about seeing family and being together and cosy days in front of the fire. And food. … I think this all stems from having lovely Christmases when I was a kid.”
“I dread the added pressure that Xmas might bring. The feeling of living up to everyone’s expectations is overwhelming. My head is muddled. Cards have started to arrive. I feel I am already struggling.”
”I really look forward to Christmas as I know, I will have all my family together back home, even just for a while. Those days between Christmas and the New Year are very special to me. However, the downside is, I seem to have created a monster. Over the years I have put so much energy into making everything ‘Just right’ that now I feel exhausted at the very thought of it.”
For some of us, it seems that Christmas brings excitement, for others worry, for some both. In my mini-research family seems to provide comfort, love and joy as well as pain. Where family members live far away, it can be painful not to be with them. When relationships are a bit tense already, spending a lot of time together can fuel growing irritations and lead to arguments that nobody really wants.
Some of the answers suggest a bit of a gender split in terms of what people found challenging. For women it was the sheer number of things that they felt they needed to do which stressed them. On the other hand, it was more about the money for the men and not being able to buy the people they love what they think they should have.
All of this is challenging enough, when life is running more or less smoothly, when you have a job, you have got your health, you mostly get on with your family and you like food and going shopping. If you are suffering from an eating disorder, Christmas with food at the centre of so many traditions can be hell. In case your relationship with your partner is not going well, the expectations around Christmas can send it over the edge.
If you are already going through a divorce, there might be arguments about who gets to be with the children. Maybe you are the child to separated parents and voicing what you want to do, where you want to be or what you need is a struggle because you don’t want to upset anyone. The commercial pressures felt by so many can push them into debt, that they find difficult to get out of. When you have lost someone you loved or are preparing for it, Christmas might highlight this loss and increase the pain.
Social media, TV adverts – all contribute to the idea that there is an ideal Christmas to be had and what it should look like. And many of us work very hard to achieve this, not always with success, which can make us feel like a failure. We might feel sad, angry or ashamed and become anxious, depressed or stressed.
In counselling it’s an opportunity to put ghosts from Christmas past to bed, to find out what we fear, challenge messages we have taken on and now live by, identify roles we have taken on but have outgrown. As one person said:
“My dad died just before Christmas when I was 5. My mum has always grieved at Christmas. I can’t remember one where she didn’t cry. I think my need to be jolly and create the ultimate Christmas stems from that.”
Finding out what aspects we are struggling with the most, can help us devise strategies – from writing Christmas cards in October, agreeing on a budget/ budgeting throughout the year, going on walks to give us some space and generally managing expectations. We can learn how to recognise our own limitations and how to ask for help or say ‘no’.
Re-framing a situation can also be helpful: the very unchristmassy argument, about how to decorate the tree – very colourful or understated – between teenagers can result in a new Christmas tradition: one year very colourful, one year understated and has provided them with a lesson in diplomacy and increased their resilience. The argument over who to see or who to invite could be resolved by one year rushing around to see everyone, one year seeing no-one etc. and so honour everyone’s needs and strengthen a relationship.
We can get so stuck in a vision of Christmas that doesn’t suit or serve us that we miss opportunities to enjoy what is there to enjoy and make adaptations or profound changes where we need them. What surprised me more than anything in this reflection and mini-research is how much power Christmas as a social event seems to have over so many of us to leave us feeling bad about ourselves. I find this ironic, when at the core of Christmas and its Pagan relative is the hope for light in darkness.
What on earth happened?
PS: The car passed the MOT with only one light bulb needing to be replaced. There’s a perfect gift!