Where we exorcise the ghosts of Christmases Past and I try to find some rules to help anyone who is struggling under the weight of seasonal obligations.
It’s that time of year again. I know this because my social media feeds are full of trees and twinkling lights and Christmas markets (and don’t even get me started on Christmas markets; a couple of huts with tinsel draped around them selling overpriced ‘gift ideas’ does not a Christmas market make).
This year it feels as if the season has already been here forever, since a lot of people started their preparations early, determined to make up for the festive fun they missed out on last year when Christmas was cancelled last minute.
Actually, we never use the c-word in my household (when I say ‘household’ that is really just me). I long ago abandoned the idea of traditional Christmases and have mostly spent them travelling.
The shops are packed out and all the normal stock has been replaced by ‘gift baskets’ and similar, yet still we are assaulted by adverts insisting that we shop some more. The world will end if you run out of mince pies or someone gives you a present you weren’t expecting. You’d better buy an extra pack or two of mince pies in case of unexpected visitors and wrap an extra present or two so that you can counter the unexpected gift.
Despite what the advertisers will have you believe, not everyone has a wonderful family life. I have nightmare memories of Xmas past, with my parents offering non-stop criticism from the moment I walked through the door. I dealt with this by inventing a litany of excuses as to why I couldn’t visit, and would then spend the day racked with guilt.
I regret now that I didn’t deal with it more assertively; for example, by producing a list of topics not up for discussion : e.g what a disappointment I am to them, my clothes, my lifestyle, my long straggly hair with no style to it, my weight, how little I eat, how much I eat, how badly I park my car. (This is not an exhaustive list; my parents never missed an opportunity to let me know just how much I’d ‘let them down’).
My parents are both long dead now, but this would be my advice for anyone currently enduring this kind of holiday: make a list and tell your family in advance that these topics are not up for discussion. In the end, you have to give top priority to your own mental health; if visiting your family causes unbearable stress and they refuse to see your point of view and stop criticising, then one way of coping is to stay away. If people really do love you then they should respect your right to live your life differently. And parents: if you’re wondering why your grown-up children hardly ever visit, maybe think about the way you talk to them.
If the pandemic has taught me anything it’s the need to protect my own mental health.
For anyone who finds that the holiday season is damaging their sanity, no matter how you spend it, then here are some survival techniques that work for me.
- Stop shopping immediately. The world will not end if you refuse to stress yourself out by finding the ideal present for that fussy person who doesn’t like anything. Just stop shopping. We don’t need all this stuff. So much of what we buy ends up on landfills anyway; if you feel the need to justify your non-shopping then tell everyone you’re having a zero waste Christmas this year.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. Switch off your social media. (this works regardless of the time of year; if ever I feel my mental state taking a turn for the worse I normally avoid my social media for a while). Don’t believe the hype; nobody lives the life they show on Instagram. That ‘influencer’ that you are comparing yourself to – it’s likely her mother is constantly nagging her to get a real job.
- f it gets overwhelming, find some space of your own. Warn people in advance so that they don’t come and rescue you or keep asking if you’re all right.
- (THIS CAN NOT BE OVERSTATED): Don’t spend more than you can afford. Anyone who’s ever tried to cater a Christmas on a tight budget (and had the people you’ve catered for spend the whole day whingeing about your efforts) while you worry about how you’re ever going to pay for it knows the stress that the season can bring. Avoid getting into debt that you can’t afford in pursuit of this perfect Christmas. The perfect Christmas is a media myth that serves just to line the pockets of Tesco / Marks & Spencer etc. Debt is one of the most damaging things for mental health.
- A lot of people say volunteering at a homeless hostel or similar, as a kind of alternative Christmas, is a good idea. I tried it one year and found it just a waste of my time. They had far too many volunteers, and the people who had been going for years formed a little clique blagging all the jobs. My brief became to go and mingle. Mingling is something I don’t do; I am quite capable of making conversation when I’m part of a group, but approaching strangers and instigating a conversation is not my style at all. This was a nightmare for me; someone had found the job I’m least suited to in the world and given it to me. I never again volunteered over Christmas, although I do think volunteering more generally is a good idea to boost your mental health. Just not for Christmas.