This is the first in a series of posts about getting through the holiday period. Christmas is the festival I grew up with, and the one that is the hardest to miss in the UK as it approaches, but I think much of this could apply to any other celebration where people come together over a holiday period who might not normally spend time with each other.
Needless to say, if you totally and unequivocally love these festive times, and find my question above odd or incongruous, these posts may not be for you. But you may know someone who might find them useful.
So, why does the holiday season affect so many of us so badly? And why do we continue to let it?
There are lots of potentially enjoyable things about festival periods. I am pro end-of-year (or any other time) coming together in front of fires, candles, dancing and wearing sparkly clothing. I love sitting around, not working (if possible), eating piles of food, and going for walks. As long as I can choose exactly where I am and who I am with. (That last point is crucial.)
Those are just the nice bits. The holiday season is also, at its worst, part of the Shopping Industrial Complex, with a hearty dollop of pseudo-religiosity, dubious cultural blackmail, and coercive encouragement to spend money. Many people I know start to express dread as autumn turns to winter. Sometimes they only express it privately because such ‘negativity’ may earn them a telling off from some of their friends.
So, in this piece I am trying to unpack what it is about Christmas and other holidays that makes them so challenging. For sure, every one of the challenges has an opposite number which, for balance, I will name here: happiness, excitement, thrilling anticipation, delight at old favourites being brought out, (whether tree decorations, films, or distant relatives you adore). The joy of giving. The joy of receiving. A wonderful religious (or secular) celebration. Snow (real or artificial). Singing. Community. Hearing about the wonderful time everyone else is having and being happy for them because you are happy too. The delight in sharing your own abundance. Feasting. Love. Family. Connection. But this isn’t why you’re reading this.
Nine ways the festive season can make us stressed (Really, more like 99.)
• The long, long lead-up that seems to get longer every year. Those first sleigh bells, those first red, green and white themed designs, the incongruous appearance of seasonal food displays among the discount picnic sets. These chirping canaries are almost impossible to avoid, even if you have no internet, TV or radio.
• Consequent expectations: of the world, of others, of yourself.
• The sense that you must hide any negative feelings about it all.
• Holiday spending was never easy for many people. In the last few years, things have become catastrophic. The pressure to spend a lot, be seen to do so, and the accompanying pressure to receive as much as possible, can put intolerable pressure on people. ‘What did you get?’ is a heartsink of a question. Morale can drop further at its frequent follow-up: ‘I got so much stuff! I’m so blessed!’ (See also birthdays).
• If you have children there will be a lot of added pressure. Ditto, and doubled, if there is financial inequality in your family or peer group.
• You may not wish to spend time with blood relatives or in laws who you find challenging or actively abusive.
• You may be struggling to deal with your own immediate family for the same reason.
• The pressure to be in a relationship with someone, anyone, to avoid the shame of singlehood, becomes paramount. Normative relationships are particularly pushed at this time of gift-giving.
• If you have children and have split from the person you were parenting with, you may have to do more stressful negotiation than usual about the time you all spend together.
• If you are single, you may feel obliged to perform acts of charity, such as volunteering, to compensate for your purportedly selfish lifestyle.
• You may have few personal relationships and feel increasingly isolated at this time.
Being geographically trapped
• One of the vagaries of living in the UK/London is that there is no public transport on Christmas day. It makes planning a real headache. Taxis are expensive. Railway companies often use holiday periods as a time to fix their networks as well. (I’m aware it’s a public holiday, but many people do work that day.)
• Situations that you can manage for two or three hours may swiftly become overwhelming if they involve staying the night or relying on the kindness/sobriety of others for a lift home.
• The same goes for people having an expectation of visiting you, in numbers or for lengths of time that are challenging.
• Memories of people who we have lost, and happier times long gone.
• Doubled if there is an anniversary of a loss around this time, or the loss is within the last year.
• Overwhelming proximity to people we find anything from challenging to actively abusive.
• Highly charged atmospheres.
• Feeling obliged to adopt feelings and behaviours that are alien to you.
• Other peoples’ well meaning but sometimes thoughtless exhortations to enjoy yourself.
• The assumption, often well meaning, that you must be having a good time, and that you ‘must be’ in the company of large numbers of close friends and loving family.
• The pressure to be happy, measured against a seemingly arbitrary scale that it is almost impossible to achieve.
• Comparison with others’ lives and experiences.
• Noise, flashing lights.
• Lack of money / being conspicuously the one with the least.
• You may find the presence of children triggering. This may be because of your own childhood experiences, or you are having difficulty having children of your own.
Old behaviours and patterns re-emerging
• Pleasing others.
• Denying your own needs.
• Falling back into emotional blackmail.
• Feeling obliged to pretend or put on a false persona.
• A sense of obligation leading to resentment.
• Buying others’ love, with material gifts, food, etc.
• Excessive use of alcohol, drugs, or food.
• Exacerbation of existing mental health issues.
• If you are religious, you may be appalled at the hijacking and/or commercialisation of a very significant time in the calendar.
• If you are not, you may feel that religion is being forced upon you.
• You may attend religious events only at this time of year, and may or may not feel like a hypocrite.
Alcohol and other intoxicants
• Intoxication makes everything seem bigger and louder. This can go both ways.
• Intoxication may lead to verbal and physical fights and abuse.
• It may also lead to no-going-back ‘truth-telling’. This may have a cathartic outcome, or create long rifts.
• It may encourage sexual behaviour beyond our normal boundaries, or non-consensual activity.
• Not consuming intoxicants may cause you to be singled out, whatever your reasons.
• (Paradoxically, intoxication can get us through difficult days and for some, may be the only thing that does.)
• Wanting to stay in contact with your online communities but without witnessing what might at another time be called ‘showing off’, ie the endless performative sharing of others’ bounty, whether involving holidays, gifts given and received, partners, children etc.
If you’re reading this, nodding, and shouting HELP, one thing’s for sure: you’re not alone. I suspect more people experience elements of the above than don’t. People seem to be very good at pressuring ourselves in to doing things we have never truly consented to.
My next post in the series will offer some strategies for making things go easier, faster, or quieter.
- Surviving the Festive Season Part Two: Strategies for getting through it.
- Surviving the Festive Season Part Three: When it’s all over.