We’re back in the annual round of Christmas adverts, special toasted marshmallow coffees, snowman jumpers and everything else Crimbo. It’s a lot to take in, and it can feel like the pressure only increases year on year. For many, this serves to add to the toe-curling excitement of this time of year. For some of us, this happiness is mixed with the various stresses of getting organised, preparing for visitors, cooking a huge meal and ensuring the presents nigh on perfect. Often there are money stresses thrown into the mix.
And then there is the day itself. For many of us, we’re thrown back into the feelings and patterns of our childhoods. Grown adults boxed into ways of relating that we haven’t known for many years, perhaps in the houses we grew up in, or perhaps the homes of relatives also enacting their oldest ways of being. When you consider it, it’s a pretty strange custom.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not great at Christmas. For the past few years, I’ve run a small business and the few weeks of December have always been our craziest of the year, a mixture of special events and busy regular days meaning that by the time I get to December 24th I just want to put my feet up and have a good sleep. Present-buying and tree-decorating generally fall by the wayside, meaning a last-minute dash around the shops before the train ride back to the ancestral home (I’m joking, my parents live in a semi in Sittingbourne.)
This year things are a bit different, and we’ve fewer events for the business (by choice! What freedom). So I’ll have some time and space. I’m using some of that to think about the particular difficulties of this time of year, for me and others. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve come up with:
1) Families and relationships
Yes, it’s that old classic: All gathered around the tree, the turkey, the TV. Many hours spent cooped up indoors with those people we love and hate the most (delete or adjust according to your experience – I’d guess we’re all somewhere on that continuum.) As we slide back into old patterns, grown adults feel like children, parents long freed from the ties of children feel like, well, parents again, and adult selves fly out the window. The results can be messy.
Perhaps a helpful thing we can do in these times is referred to some Transactional Analysis. TA can help us identify when we are unconsciously slipping into roles in our relationships – either as a child, adult or parent. Ideally, we’ll be operating on an adult-adult level, but that’s often just not the way things go, particularly in older relationships or ones with established patterns laid down long ago.
When things reach a certain pitch of stress this Christmas, take a beat, step back emotionally, and consider what role you’re inhabiting, or you feel the other person may be asking of you. Is that where you want to be? Is it who you are now? Give yourself some space, and remember that while many years ago your choices may have been limited, that’s not the case now. Make conscious choices where you can.
And, if all else fails, perhaps fall back on that Christmas failsafe: a good long walk.
2) Pressure & Perfectionism
In many families and groups, responsibility for the big day and preparations leading up to it will fall primarily on one person (often, annoyingly, still a woman). Others may help, but there will be a central figure making sure the shopping is done, the food is in the fridge, the cards are bought and organised (as I write this I am realising how much this person is not me…)
If you are that person, how does it feel to bear the pressure? Is Christmas preparation something you love, or is it additional stress on an already-busy workload at home and elsewhere?
Take a moment to think about the pressures you’re feeling. Are they from others, or from yourself? Is there some perfectionism in the mix? What would it be like to allow one thing to be left undone, or, if it needs doing – to ask for help?
In the midst of it all, how much time are you taking for yourself? What restores and nurtures you, and how can you find time to fit more of that into your life right now?
Christmas is fundamentally a festival in the bleakest mid-winter to allow us space to find light, joy and rest before we pick ourselves up again and face the coldest months of the year. It helps me to remind myself of that, in amongst all the cultural and capitalist noise, and to think about what I want out of the season.
With the pressures we put on ourselves to make everything perfect, we can run the risk of getting into the red. Where things are already stressful, the balancing act of buying presents and feeding everyone well while keeping to a budget can seem impossible. Planning ahead can help, as can setting boundaries and expectations, and being creative about gifts.
I’m not sure what to say here that won’t sound rather hollow. While many of us negotiate the ins and outs of the people in our life, for others this can be a painful time of year where loneliness hits home. Perhaps you are on your own, or with others (but feeling alone). In either situation, images of the perfect Christmas can compound emotions that linger the rest of the year.
The subtext of Christmas is the sadness of those we’ve lost, and those we wish we had close to us. Bearing those feelings can be profoundly difficult.
For others in a more fortunate position, thinking of those around us – neighbours, co-workers, friends - who would value our support can make all the difference.
Before I wrote this, I asked colleagues for their input on what Christmas means to them – the stresses, strains and joys. The response I got was huge – it seems that all of us have thoughts about this time of year, and all of us are impacted in some way. Perhaps where emotions or issues are in the background the rest of the year, at Christmas they come to knock at our door more forcefully. Those we miss are more noticeably absent; those we struggle with are more noticeably present.
Where we willingly compare ourselves to others year-round, we look through the decorated windows of others and imagine cosy fireside perfection. It takes a moment to remember that their reality probably differs little from our own mixed bag of rushed shopping, family tussles and hidden heartaches.
So whatever your season looks like this year, remember in those tougher moments: You are far less alone than you might feel.