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Why do I wish you a Gentle Christmas, not a Merry Christmas.
Why does wishing some people a merry Christmas emotionally injurious?
Why does calling the Christmas period a “festive season” an arbitrary notion.
Our society has always framed the Christmas period as a time of festivities, celebrations, family gatherings, gifting, merry, and cheer. Why is this social construct harmful and problematic? It is indeed problematic because for many, the Christmas period is not a joyous time, but a time of intense loneliness, sadness, grief, mourning, and sorrow. It is a time where many people are painfully reminded of their losses, be it through death, separation, estrangement, and other unique life circumstances.
Unlike other forms of losses, there are many people who will spend the festive period alone, or away from their families, as they have made the brave decision to distance themselves from toxic families, friends, or unhealthy dynamics, in order to protect their mental health and peace. Some have divorced or ended unhealthy relationships, while others have had their relationships ended by their ex-partners. For others, migration has disconnected them from their families and friends. Many are bidding farewell to their loved ones who have terminal illnesses. The ravaging wars have directly impacted many others; they have family and friends stuck in the war zones, and therefore acutely worried about their wellbeing and safety. Surely Christmas is far from being a joyous period, but a time of pain, sorrow, and aguish.
Capitalism and the erasure of Christmas
We live in a capitalist world where there is an erasure of the true essence of Christmas. Christmas has become a vanity affair, a time to buy each other expensive gifts. Real love is not shown through deeds, but extravagant Christmas gifts, and lavish Christmas parties. This is problematic as some people who may not have the financial means to buy gifts for their loved ones are put under immense pressure and often left experiencing a lot of shame for not "providing" in the ways that others are seen to be. People who are estranged from their families are likely not to receive any cards, gifts, or invitation from their families. Wishing someone in this category a merry Christmas is indeed poking a sore wound. Wishing them a gentle Xmas is a more meaningful, and truly compassionate way of acknowledging that we all have unique circumstances, which shapes how we view and experience the Christmas period. It is not always joyous and that is ok!
Christmas and the impending New Year
The Christmas week is only a week away from the new year. The calendar date changes spell the ending of an era, a time of loss, and letting go of the old year- paradoxically there is a fusion of time and space, in the separation of the old and new. The Christmas and New year periods are indeed contemplative ones, where many people reflect on the year, and make an appraisal of their experiences and milestones. Some may have struggled relationally, financially, emotionally, spiritually, and with their mental health- it is a time of acknowledging and accepting what was, and making plans of what could be. The awareness of failures or shortfalls can provoke anxiety, sadness, and other complex feelings such as shame, anger, guilt, self-blame and even self-loathing. New year resolutions are often made from a place of wanting to make up for these shortfalls.
Mental Health Crises during the Festive Period
The mental health services report a higher rate of people experiencing mental health crises over the Christmas period. Indeed, psychiatric admissions are on the high, and calls to Samaritans, and other telephone helpline services soar- these are from people who are finding it difficult to go through Christmas. This highlights the issue that Christmas is not always a joyous time, and it is a time where many are pushed beyond their capacity to cope. Mental Health UK reports that 54% of the population find the Christmas period stressful and emotionally challenging. A Yougov survey revealed that a quarter of the UK population agree that Christmas makes their mental health worse.
For people with social anxiety and generalised anxiety, family pressures to attend big gatherings can be very stressful and exacerbate their anxiety. This can have long lasting impact of them, beyond the Christmas period. Anxiety puts the body’s nervous system into fight, flight, or freeze modes. Staying in any of these modes for extended periods of time can indeed put a strain on the body’s nervous system and also cause wear and tear, leading to depression, which often co-exist with anxiety. Anxiety can impair one’s ability to cope with day-to-day life, and if left untreated, it can have enduring and severe consequences on one’s overall wellbeing.
For many, the Christmas period can trigger stress and anxiety. The idea of being a perfect host and having a perfect Christmas can also present with a cluster of secondary challenges. Some parents feel pressured to be great mothers/fathers for their children and make a perfect Christmas for them. Instead of Christmas being celebratory, it becomes a time of heightened anxiety, stress, and conflict as well.
Christmas Timing- Seasonal Mood Changes
The Christmas period is at the peak of the winter season; December is the month with less daylight and wettest weather. The Winter solstice is on the 22nd December; we have only about 7 and a half hours of daylight.
The winter period is in itself a challenging time, for many people who are likely to experience seasonal affective mood changes. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and anxiety is high during the winter seasons. The stress around the Christmas period can exacerbate what is already fragile mental health. Mind UK reports that a third of the population experiences seasonal mood changes. This demonstrates how Christmas can be even more challenging to some in a period that is already difficult for them.
Boundaries and Family Gatherings
Many people find family gatherings stressful and daunting due to family members’ lack of boundaries- offering unsolicited advice, asking why one isn’t married or have kids yet, body shaming, and querying one's sexuality. In today’s society, many people are choosing to delay marriage & having kids, and others make conscious decisions not to. Many people are in same sex relationships or non monogamous unconventional relationships. Christmas is a period where family gatherings bring with it a lot of stress of having to defend oneself or justify their life decisions. Christmas does indeed become a dreadful period which require tact and tenacity to navigate.
As a society we have come obsessed with slim figures, devaluing the fact that we all come in different shapes, sizes, and BMI. Some people are naturally slimmer than others; while some find it harder to shift body weight than others. The notion that slim is healthy, desirable, and attractive, inadvertently normalises body shaming in families. Not having seen each other for long periods of time often invites comments about weight gain, weight loss-body shaming, and other inappropriate pernicious behaviours.
It is known that domestic violence is on the high during the festive period and this is the case for many reasons. People have easier access to alcohol as drinking during the Christmas is normalised. People are likely to drink more, or binge, and they are likely to have less outdoor activities due to the poor weather conditions. Financial pressures become apparent over the Christmas period & they tend to become a source of conflict for many couples, leading to fights. The social pressures to get everything together for Christmas also present its challenges which can significantly escalate into domestic abuse- verbal, emotional, and physical. The National Domestic Helpline reports that domestic violence is high during Christmas period with the number of call domestic violence reacted calls multiply over the festive period. It is known that there is a correlation between domestic abuse, poverty and crime.
*Reframing a merry Christmas into a gentle Christmas means we can approach Christmas mindful of those whose circumstances does not make this period particularly pleasant. For those who struggle during Christmas, they can embrace Christmas for what it is, and what it brings, and lean into the feelings, whether it’s, sadness, grief and reflection, without feeling the pressure to pretend all is ok, just because its Christmas*
Ways to support each other over the Christmas Period
-Check in with friends and family even if it means dropping them a line
-If you are estranged from your biological family, develop relationships with others (chosen families) that you can spend time with and celebrate important events like Christmas with
-Send cards to others, you never know what a difference it makes to someone who may not have anyone extending love to them in that way
-If you find Christmas gathering difficult, politely decline invitations and spend your Christmas wherever you feel safe
-If you have family members who often give unsolicited advice, create boundaries by politely asking them not to offer the advice
-If you are prone to getting stressed over Xmas, plan your days in advance and create small and manageable tasks that you can approach in a systematic way
- If you are prone to drinking over Xmas, be mindful of the amount of alcohol you jut & consume. Limiting access to alcohol means you are less likely to binge
-If you are a victim of domestic violence, seek help from family and friends or call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline
- Instead of wishing others a merry Xmas, wish them a gentle Christmas instead.
May you step into 2024 extending love, kindness, and compassion to others around you.
Love is the whole thing, we are only pieces -Rumi!
Photo Credit Jemima-Whyles Unsplash