“Christmas”—by which I mean that holiday period butt-end of the year that also encompasses Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, other denominational time off work, atheist trips to the pub, New Year's Day etc—can be a great celebration; a send off for the year gone by and a welcome to the new. But all too often it’s instead a time of abject misery, a welter of disappointment, a year’s worth of sorrowful Sundays rolled into one. Calls to the Samaritans peak at this time of year (they received over 240,000 during the holiday period in 2013)
The pressure is on to have a good time. Money is tight. It’s dark and gloomy. If you already feel lonely, as so many people do, at Christmas time the loneliness gets turbocharged. The people we normally rely on—friends, colleagues, therapists—are away. Sometimes it all makes us feel sad. Sometimes it makes us feel murderous: Forget goodwill to all—a kind of infantile jealousy and rage kick in against anyone who is seemingly actually having the exalted “Happy Christmas,” the one that we’re supposed to be having, the one we deserve. Psychoanalysts attribute “Christmas neurosis” to sibling rivalries reawakened by the baby Jesus, or to some sort of Oedipal conflict with Santa Claus (yes, they really think like that).
We eat too much, we drink too much, and we feel bad. A vague sense of religious guilt seems to descend like a fine mist. Maybe we are not so optimistic about the coming year. We think about a Christmas from a while back, or from many years ago, when we were younger, healthier, and we remember people who are now gone, and it all aches. The losses accumulate; on significant days on the calendar, they seem to get multiplied and amplified. The magical wishes we had from childhood never came true, and this time of year is a keen reminder of those past disappointments, and a harbinger, too, of inevitable frustrations to come. We turn into Scrooge—cynical, alienated, depressed, numb—as a defence against all the pain.
We get the Christmas blues. Santa Claus isn’t coming to town after all. There are no chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The tiny tots’ eyes are all aglow but only with fury or disappointment because they didn’t like their present—you got the wrong one, or it’s broken already, or it’s lacking batteries or some other vital part is missing. It’s not a white Christmas—it’s grey. Those loud noises you hear aren’t party poppers, or champagne corks, or funny punch lines, but the eruption of family tensions that have simmered all year. (Or worse, they don’t erupt but just carry on simmering in silence.) Your Christmas is a million miles away from the one that’s depicted in all those ads on TV.
If it could be accepted for whatever it turns out to be this year, Christmas might be OK. A lot of the problems come with the feeling that yours doesn’t quite measure up—and, by extension, you don’t measure up, either. You try and inevitably fail to live up to an idealized, fantasy version of what Christmas “should” be. It “should” be the most wonderful time of the year, bathed in celestial light, warmth and goodness. And while we’re at it, you “should” have done more with your life. Your relationship “should” be different, better, more loving, more alive. You “should” have written a novel by now, made more money, been a better parent, son, daughter, student, employee, neighbour, friend. You should have made a difference. You should have fed the world. Oh yes. How small our grandiosity makes us become. We wallow in our deep and dreamless fog of self-recrimination while above us, unnoticed, the silent stars go by.
6 survival suggestions this Christmas
• Modify your goals, expectations and hopes. Maybe you don’t need all the trimmings this year. Literally and symbolically, if there are too many decorations on the Christmas tree, you can’t even see the Christmas tree or, worse, it buckles and collapses under the weight of expectation. Less can be so much more.
Years ago, the English child psychologist Donald Winnicott propounded the notion of the “good enough” mother. The guilt of not doing more, not being a perfect mother, not being a goddess offering an ever-flowing fountain of selfless love—it all just gets in the way. As the saying goes, great is the enemy of good. Sometimes, accepting mediocrity is what gives you the space to transcend it. You can’t be extraordinary without first embracing your ordinariness. And so it is with Christmas—and other things in your life. So here’s to a good enough Christmas. And a good enough everything else, too.
• Have the Christmas you want. What would be good for you? There might well be family obligations, duties, expectations that have to be met, but are there also spaces over the holiday period where you can do what you want? Where and when and how are you going to play? Are you going to start or continue your own quirky, individual Christmas traditions that have nothing to do with how it’s all supposed to be? Are you going to do your thing? When Scrooge awakens, transformed, from his dreams on Christmas morning, he is liberated, free, alive, and sets about living his life like an unleashed puppy. Writes Dickens: “He cared not if people laughed at him—his own heart laughed.”
• Look after yourself. It’s a stressful enough time as year as it is—our coping strategies are more important than ever. Yet there’s a tendency over the holidays to stop doing all the normal things that you do to keep healthy and happy. It’s a time of year when we give ourselves permission to relax the normal rules. In Freudian terms, we give our “superego” the rest of the year off, and our normally repressed “id” leaps onto the stage, ready to party. We stay up late eating ice cream, we have red wine for breakfast, we wear really terrible sweaters. We do silly, impulsive, embarrassing things. That’s all fine, well and good—Christmas is indeed playtime. But then sometimes, it suddenly isn’t good, and we feel listless, irritable, bored, apathetic, empty, guilty or anxious. We’ve gone too far; there is psychic indigestion. We need some balance. There’s no need to completely lose control; no need to give the “ego” the rest of the year off, too. Think about the things that make you feel good—a little exercise, perhaps, a good night’s sleep, some healthy food, creativity, some music, meditation, moderation. Don’t abandon them—or you—just because it’s Christmas.
• If things get really bad, seek help. Organisations like the Samaritans and Sane are there for you throughout the holidays. Go to my help page to find details of organizations that offer support.
• Do some giving that doesn’t involve a credit card. Give some of your time, energy and presence to a friend in need, a neighbour, a charity, a crisis centre. Make your Christmas presents instead of buying them, and make them personal. Giving is a massive reward—a gift to you, too. (Trade secret: That’s why people become therapists.)
• Plan your own ascension, renaissance, transformation. Away from Christmas—the loud and drunken parties, the relentless extortions and exhortions to buy things, the epicurean excesses, all the tinselly, frivolous nonsense—there is something else, something eternal, timeless, a kind of immutable wisdom. For some, of course, this has religious significance. For others, it’s all about the Winter Solstice. At this time of year, long before Christmas was invented, people would celebrate Saturnalia, a pagan festival of light—December 25 was said to be the birthday of Invictus, the Sun God. The shortest day is past and a new sun is rising. The days will be getting longer and things will soon start to grow afresh. The world turns. Here, in the quiet and stillness of the dead of winter, when everything is stripped back and bare, we can reflect, plan, and prepare. Sometimes we make a list of new year’s resolutions as a substitute for actually doing them, making changes, taking charge of our life. Maybe this time it will be different. It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life.