Well done, you made it! To misquote John Lennon, another year over and a new one just about to begin. Now there’s just the tricky issue of Christmas to navigate and it’s plain sailing all the way into 2019, right?
Well, yes – but that’s easier said than done.
Over the last two weeks or so, I’ve seen quite a lot of stuff online about why Christmas is a terrible time of the year.
I don’t know, maybe the mood of the moment is to be fed up with life. I don’t know why that should be the case, and maybe we should blame Brexit for it, since that seems to be responsible for everything else that people perceive to be wrong in life generally these days.
I think for most people, Christmas is a wonderful time of year (though, as I said in the article I wrote this time last year, we should be careful about setting our expectations too high and constructing an ideal that the festive season will never match), but there’s no doubt that for others it can also be a something to be dreaded.
Bereavement, grief, loss and isolation are all obvious triggers for issues around emotional wellbeing at Christmas. This is, after all, the time of year that trades heavily in the currency of togetherness and companionship shared in the warm glow of fairy lights and flaming Christmas puddings.
But because those raw emotions are so all-consuming, they’re easier to recognise even if they’re not easy to resolve. Support, empathy and care are always much more forthcoming when the symptoms of emotional discomfort are in plain sight.
It’s the invisible emotional damage that carries the heftiest price tag at Christmas.
So, what are the things that can make up the worst that this best of seasons has to offer?
Your bank account is empty, and your credit cards are maxed out
Yep. Christmas is ridiculously expensive. But a lot of us get sucked into the artificial bauble-strewn dream that the advertising executives create in our heads. In this fantasy, we are the kings and queens of the big gesture. It’s the marquee gift we can ill-afford and would never buy in a month of Sundays.
It’s the heady whirl of office parties, bring-a-bottle Christmas gatherings, meals out, the ridiculous must have bird-within-a-bird-within-a-bird roast (what the hell is that all about, anyway?), the Kuwait-sized oil reserves needed to fuel your car on the endless round of family visits to far-flung corners of the UK.
It’s the constant whirl of party invitations you feel you must attend if only to stop everyone getting all judgy behind your back. It’s the several dozen new dresses you need to buy with money you haven’t got (because you spent it all on presents for other people) so you don’t commit ultimate fashion faux pas of being seen out in the same frock twice (celebrities have much to answer for here).
In supermarkets, stress levels go through the roof to the point where people actually fight over the last turkey. I’m sure there are large numbers of people who think Armageddon is just around the corner. How else do you explain someone bulk buying 48 loaves of bread and enough double cream to bathe in?
And it goes on, and on, and on. Christmas is officially a crazy time of year when all rational sense goes out of the window.
What that leads to is stress and worry about how you’re going to afford the things that really do matter. So, here’s a thought: don’t spend as much as you think you should.
Maybe it’s too late to send back the marquee present, but if it isn’t, send it back. If you haven’t bought it yet, don’t. Get people to come to you. Be a rebel. Say no to the infinity-bird nonsense and buy an affordable joint of meat for Christmas dinner instead – you’ll probably enjoy it more anyway.
Do we really have to spend Christmas with your parents?
Uh-huh. Christmas. The season of spending precious time you haven’t got with people you’d normally go to great lengths to avoid. And all right, the in-laws are an easy (and therefore lazy) stereotype, but whoever it is you’re spending time with begrudgingly this Christmas, that’s who we mean.
Family are the friends who get chosen for you and the dynamics aren’t always easy. If you’re in a relationship, the pressure to play happy families is intense, every interaction a potential emotional grenade. Especially if the conversation turns to Brexit.
If your Christmas social commitments might be a trigger for conflict, it might just be worth reaching an understanding with your partner ahead of time about putting a sensible limit on the amount of time you’re each expected to spend with the people who you find difficult.
And it’s not just about having an agreement with your partner, either. It’s also about having an agreement with yourself about how and when you take a break from situations and people who trigger strong negative emotion.
Christmas is a joyful time, but it’s also a time when we’re expected to get along with everyone – and the fact is there are people who’ll do your head in whether it’s Christmas or not. Many a falling out has been avoided by a strategically-taken head-cooling walk round the block.
Can I pour you another?
I think I must have missed the memo where it became compulsory to consume the entire stock in the Sainsbury wine and spirit aisle in a single week. Yet such is the stress associated with this time of the year that over-enthusiastic self-medication seems to be the order of the season.
Beer, wine, whiskey (or more likely, given the trend of 2018, herbal-infused gin), cider, it doesn’t matter as long as it numbs the stress, right? Wrong. Because before long you’re going to be Jagerbombing your way to acute embarrassment, more stress and pitiless self-recrimination. All of which you’re going to need to face with a hangover.
Alcohol is probably best avoided altogether in stressful situations – it’s rarely the answer to the problem you’re trying to resolve.
Molehill, meet mountain
The thing about Christmas, from a mental health perspective, is that it’s the world’s largest magnifying glass, and it comes with a festive soundtrack. Chris De Burgh may well be on the radio singing about peace on earth and goodwill to all men, but that counts for nothing when you’re alongside Chis Rea, top to toe in tailbacks (tailbacks, your partner helpfully reminds you, that you could have avoided if you weren’t such a bloody slave to the satnav).
The queue for the tills at Boots are so long you need to bivouac overnight to reach them and TK Maxx looks like Glastonbury, but without the really great bands.
Everything that’s annoying gets magnified. As a result, tempers fray, sensible heads overheat, and words are said that will still be quoted back to you, accompanied by a savage expression, the following June.
Because these miss-you nights are the longest
After a few Pernod & Blacks, there’s a good chance you’ll start to feel nostalgic about an old relationship. You’ll forget that neither of you had been happy for at least three millennia and the whole thing imploded in a carnival of finger-pointing and shouting that lasted well into the early hours, when you left their house and spent the night sleeping in your car.
Christmas is a time when the memories we create are most vivid, and because we spend a lot of time around people who are also pretending to have the jolliest of jolly times, we start to convince ourselves that whilst the grass on the other side might be covered in snow, it is nevertheless almost certainly greener than what’s currently growing under our own feet.
And so, for some of us, Yuletide is a time when we mourn what we once had and consider ourselves poorer for it. But a bit like the Christmas fantasy we’ve been conditioned to believe in, it’s not reality.
Since when did it become a requirement of Christmas to be in a relationship, anyway? If you are, and you’re happy, then fantastic. I’m genuinely pleased for you. But if you’re not, you shouldn’t be feeling like you’ve failed in some way.
It’s totally okay to be single. In fact, it’s healthier to be happily single than it is to be in some awful relationship just because some idiotic social convention says you really should be seeing someone. That’s not actually a thing. It never was.
In short, Christmas is a time when it’s easy to lose sight of what’s good in your life. It’s a time when we feel pressure to be happy and joyful and carefree actually feel worse because our own reality doesn’t shape up to that expectation.
If you really want to be happy this Christmas, you’ll need to make sure you’re serving up a good dose of realism with the chestnut stuffing. That doesn’t mean you need to be the Grinch. But it probably does mean putting yourself first when every instinct is telling you not to.
Whatever your take on Christmas, we wish a merry one for you. But to really enjoy it, you have to remember that it’s just one day. Just one period of 24 hours. It’s not some kind of witching hour where you have to have everything in your life figured out. It really doesn’t have to mean so much.
You’re a work in progress. We all are. As humans, we are things of beauty because we are imperfect. Christmas is chaotic, but it should be chaotic in a way that leaves you breathless in a good way. So, be kind to yourself – you’ve earned it.