It’s that time again. I’m surrounded by ads, billboards, Christmas baubles, lights and decorations everywhere. As I walk along the street, in some shops, and when I drive along listening to the radio, I hear advertisements, constantly telling me to buy, buy, buy. Telling me that they have the answer for that ‘hard to buy for person’. Urging me to buy the ‘must haves’ for the Christmas season. Exhorting me to spend on ‘stocking fillers’ – which seems to stand in for meaningless presents that make you look like you thought of people.
And did I also mention the smiling people in those ads who are all well dressed, seem to be laughing and happy to be together? The kids who are full of joy and anticipation at the presents they’ll get –those brightly coloured piles of beautifully wrapped boxes under the ubiquitous tree?
I pause and note I’m starting to sound like the Grinch.
I don’t mean to.
Is just that, this year, and increasingly, each year in fact, I find it harder and harder to relate to the consumerism, the hype, the pressure to buy stuff. The media representation of universal privilege and access to love and happiness. I find the images that bombard us all at this time more and more difficult to tolerate. In fact, far from making me want to join the fray, I getting less and less Christmas-sy each year. I bought RSPCA cards this year, and haven’t written in a single one. It’s December 23 and I haven’t bought anyone any presents. Literally. No-one.
Working as a therapist, I hear very mixed stories about Christmas. Christmases past when people still recall (and some still fear) violent outbursts by relatives or partners. Tales of sexual abuse by visiting – or resident – relatives. Stories of fights and verbal abuse at family gatherings. ‘Tis the season for all sorts of ugly things at this time, it seems. Christmas certainly doesn’t seem to mean there was any reprieve from abuse. I hear many tales of unsavoury seasonal moments with drunken relatives. I strive to develop strategies tailored to particular environments to avoid, or at least escape, the predatory groping (and worse) of Christmas guests in all sorts of settings – end of year work parties, friendship group drinks, and family gatherings. Christmas opportunism, as far as I can tell, abounds. I work to help people develop strategies to attempt to plan for, avert or at least contain unpleasant emotionally, physically or sexually abusive encounters with people they know they will encounter at this time.
Where possible, I encourage people to consider no contact with those who have proven to be repeat offenders. For many people I see, this option is a bridge too far at this time, much as they wish they could. For some people, the idea, the possibility that they too might, one day, grant themselves permission NOT to have any contact with certain abusive characters in their lives seems like the stuff of fairytales when I present it to them. For now, it’s not a real option to them. Their fears of the emotional fallout in their family and social circles is too great to risk drawing such clear lines. So I work to contain, to strategise around what they see as inevitable instead. And develop exit plans. I work hard to encourage people not to put up with abuse once it starts – to at least give themselves permission to leave, if nothing else. If they’re adults, I remind them: you grew up with it; you do NOT have to grow old with it. You couldn’t avoid it when you were little and you had to endure it then; you do NOT have to do so now.
In preparing people to plan for damage control, I accept that we will be dealing with the fallout of the latest Christmas when we meet again in January.
After Christmas, I know I’ll hear more stories like those I heard before the break. I also know I’ll hear distress stories about credit card bills that people ran up unthinkingly in the headlong rush to buy, to please, to be seen to be like other people, to keep up. I’ll hear lots of distress about people deviating from their pre-Christmas resolve – to contain their drinking; not to spend more than they can afford; not to buy useless, meaningless presents; not to gorge on food they later regret eating. I’ll hear about hurtful exchanges, and bewildering fights. There will be tears and rueful “next year” resolves spoken about how they will avert the same thing happening next year.
In the post Christmas clean-up, I will hear a few stories of calm gatherings where nothing went wrong, where things went surprisingly well. Where people treated each other respectfully, kindly. I might even hear a story or two of reconciliation, of surprise repairs and apologies for old hurts. I will celebrate and savour those stories with those fortunate to experience them. But I know these will be in the minority. Their numbers small in contrast to the mountain of other stories I will debrief.
In this light, it’s hard for me not to think of Christmas in a somewhat jaundiced way.
Meanwhile, organizations I support email me about the desperate plight of refugees all over the globe, of women and children everywhere at this time. They won’t be celebrating the kinds of Christmas I see advertised. Charities that work with the most unfortunate in our society plead for donations to help them literally feed the homeless, to keep their shelter doors open. In their pre-Christmas appeal, I am overwhelmed by the statistics the RSPCA publishes about the onslaught of abandoned animals that comes every year right after Christmas – unwanted stuff doesn’t just go to landfill, it seems. Environmental organizations plead with me to help in their efforts to lobby for more responsible care of this fragile planet of ours (glitter gravy, anyone?).
Among my loved ones, I have several people around me dealing with cancer at various stages of the cancer story – one in the early stages of diagnosis, another post operative, a third facing palliative care, a fourth caring for a partner in the final stages. As I face my own Christmas, I remember my own dear friend last year who spent her last Christmas in palliative care and subsequently died early this year. At this time of the year, I am keenly aware of both my own good fortune, and my grief over the depth of suffering I can do so little about.
So how do I get into any sort of Christmas spirit?
I reflect on the things I currently enjoy that I am grateful for. My health, for one. A select number of dear friends – their love and support. My aging dog ‘s health. The privilege of meaningful and rewarding work. Having work that is well remunerated. Living in a comfortable, safe home. Living in a country that recently took a step in the direction of equality for more people by granting LGBT folk the right to marry under the law. Living in a country where I have more rights as a woman than I might in many other places on earth. Living in a country where I have the right to express my displeasure at the Government’s actions when I disagree with its policies, and lobby to have them changed, sometimes to good effect.
So how is Christmas for you? If you’re struggling with all of this forced Christmas cheer, if you also feel out of step with all of this perfect Christmas mythology, you might consider the following –
- Is it an option for you to give Christmas a miss altogether? To declare it as irrelevant to you and go about your day pre and post Christmas living your life according to your own values and what it means to you, regardless of all the hype around you?
- If you do decide to secede from the Christmas celebration movement, what are likely to be the consequences for you? Will there be some backlash from some quarters in your life? What resources will you need in order to contain and protect yourself from that backlash? Can you emotionally finance dealing with that backlash? Be honest in thinking about this – don’t set yourself up for more hurt than you have the resources to deal with right now.
- If secession is not an option , no matter how much you might yearn for it, what containment strategies might you be able to plan in advance to protect yourself from the worst of Christmas excess – be that other peoples’ or your own acting out? Do you have an exit plan to remove yourself if the situation shows signs of deteriorating? Remember: it’s best to leave before it has gone past the point of no return – you most likely know the signs that things are going south.
- On the other hand, if, and it’s a big if, you were to take charge of what Christmas means for you in a positive way, whatever your religions or cultural background, what could you make it mean? Quiet time to yourself doing whatever makes you feel most nourished – a walk in nature, a long bath, lying on a the couch reading a book, time with a hobby, watching some movie series you’ve wanted to see, going to see a film? A gathering of people you love around a meal? Volunteering with people who do it tough at this time, or at an animal shelter helping to care for abandoned animals?
- If you do decide to participate in more of the usual Christmas gathering, how can you bring more meaning to it for yourself? Can you resist the pressure to see lots of people, some of whom are not necessarily that significant to you? Can you choose to be really present as your personal gift of undivided attention to each person you choose to spend time with? Can you find ways to treat yourself and others with care and respect right through? Can you find other ways to be generous that don’t necessarily involve buying more stuff?
And if you think it’s time to give yourself the gift of making sure the next Christmas is different to the one you’re facing, then contact me. Let’s debrief how you ‘do’ Christmas when it doesn’t work for you, let’s work to equip you to deal differently with the inevitable Christmas undertow and let’s see how we can make you feel better about this time of year in 2018.